Sentinel Testing Promotes Health and Safety

March 2, 2021

The College of Community Health Sciences worked closely in 2020 with The University of Alabama’s efforts to mitigate community spread of COVID-19 by conducting sentinel testing of employees and students. The College, which operates University Medical Center, is continuing the work in 2021.

Sentinel testing is one of several important measures for preventing the spread of COVID-19 and keeping campus safe.

UA invested in setting up a lab at UMC that performs polymerase chain reaction tests, or PCR tests, the more rigorous of available tests for COVID-19. Coupled with the ability to conduct rapid tests, UMC staff can more easily collect results and report them in a timely manner.

“We can turn PCR test results around in 24 hours because it’s being done on-site and doesn’t have to be sent to an outside lab,” said Dr. Tom Weida, UMC’s chief medical officer.

We are doing PCR mass testing. We can turn PCR test results around in 24 hours because it’s on site. (some labs taking three and four days.)

As in 2020, UMC staff continue to manage sentinel testing and the collection, testing and reporting of the random samples of the campus community. It is expected that sentinel testing will be expanded in 2021 by an increase of locations on campus for the testing.

“We feel good about our efforts,” said Dr. Richard Friend, dean of CCHS. “We listened to feedback from faculty, staff and students from the fall semester, and set out to take a proactive approach to mitigate concerns to provide accessible testing with reliable, rapid results.”

Spring 2021 sentinel testing began weekly on January 19 for three weeks and is continuing every other week.

Participation in sentinel testing is voluntary for most but required for: students living on campus; students participating in clinical activities; students who will have a presence on campus at any time during the semester; and other individuals participating in University-sponsored programs, at the discretion of UA.

“The sentinel program is a bridge to for-cause testing,” Friend said. He said the testing will allow the University to “make good, scientific calls on where we need to go and what we need to do with for-cause testing.”

For-cause testing occurs when there is a geographic cluster of positive test results, such as a section of a residence hall or a classroom. Working alongside symptomatic and exposure testing, sentinel testing is designed to find these clusters early by alerting of asymptomatic individuals in the community.