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Signs in the University of Georgia's Legion Pool parking lot denote the site as a COVID-19 surveillance testing site in Athens, Georgia, on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; @taylormckenzie_photo)

Before the start of the 2020 fall semester, the University of Georgia faced criticism from concerned members of the university community for its decision to conduct only 300 COVID-19 surveillance tests per day on asymptomatic student, faculty and staff volunteers.

Since then, however, the university has had some success in increasing its daily testing average. The university has expanded its surveillance testing capacity to 500 tests per day.

In addition, the university has invested in incentives and making getting tested easier.

Over the past few weeks, UGA has offered surveillance testing participants free Starbucks coffee as well as coupons to popular restaurants like Chick-Fil-A and Jittery Joe’s. The university has also offered a handful of pop-up testing sites at various locations on campus.

Since then, the rate of testing has increased dramatically. After only conducting 1,365 tests during the week of Sept. 28, the rate of testing has risen for two straight weeks. That includes 2,029 surveillance tests from Oct. 12-16 — the most UGA has ever conducted in a single week. 

The number of surveillance tests fell slightly to 1,968 from Oct. 19-23, but that is still the third-highest UGA has conducted in a one-week period since the launch of its surveillance testing program.

UGA is not alone in its efforts to boost surveillance testing through ease of access and incentives.

The Georgia Institute of Technology offers participants warm cookies and entry into prizes like a free parking pass for the spring semester. The University of South Carolina has invited around 4,000 students every week in October to get tested and receive a free T-shirt. The University of Texas at Austin enters participants into a raffle to win gift cards to various businesses.

UGA has steadily improved its surveillance testing capacity since the start of school. The university can now test up to 500 asymptomatic volunteers every week day, although that still means only a small percentage of UGA’s community can get tested every week.

According to the university, there are about 50,000 students, faculty and staff in the UGA community, meaning about 5% could get a surveillance test every week. It is also smaller than Georgia Tech’s 1,500 daily testing capacity.

Still, improvements to UGA’s testing program could be important to the university’s efforts to maintain a safe environment. Widespread testing enables public health officials to find new cases and track where the virus is spreading.

This is critical with the coronavirus because many cases are asymptomatic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s best estimate is that 40% of those infected with the virus are asymptomatic, meaning the patient never develops symptoms over the course of the infection. Despite not exhibiting symptoms, asymptomatic people can still transmit the virus. Thus, testing is crucial to finding these cases that may otherwise go undetected.

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