At the beginning of the pandemic, news feeds were abuzz with anxious commentary on how Ireland would contend with high testing demand as cases surged. Six months on, the national picture is much improved and focus has shifted toward using the extended testing capacity to implement routine testing in workplaces and public spaces.
As such, the recently announced coronavirus testing pilot scheme will come as a reassuring development to students and staff preparing for the return to campus. But, like most planned virus-control measures, it remains to be seen just how effective this scheme will be.
Last month, it was announced that Ireland was ranked number one in the world in terms of immunology research, with Trinity taking a leading role in the country’s research output. Trinity Immunology Prof Luke O’Neill has quickly emerged as a trusted figure in the public face of Ireland’s coronavirus response. It is therefore no surprise that Trinity is the first Irish university to announce such a scheme for its residents.
Trinity’s plan is ambitious. It promises to deliver regular “non-invasive” testing to willing participants, in exchange for highly valuable data on the spread of the virus throughout the college community and it will hopefully pre-empt the formation of clusters within college residences.
This, in turn, will allow us to continue to live and study on campus and avoid a return to distance learning. It is a big payoff for a relatively minor inconvenience. But will it be successful, or will this scheme succumb to the bureaucratic chaos for which Trinity’s administration is so often maligned?
But will it be successful, or will this scheme succumb to the bureaucratic chaos for which Trinity’s administration is so often maligned?
Providing for large-scale regular testing will require coordination at a scale rarely seen by a college which is not known for the strength of its administrative and communicative capabilities. As a voluntary scheme, it will be almost impossible to achieve full participation among residents. Participation will probably begin to drop off after the first few weeks as term progresses and the tiresome reality of continued testing becomes apparent. Indeed, a certain amount of fatigue is inevitable, so it is imperative that College implements an effective awareness campaign to maintain morale over the course of the term.
As the first college-wide testing programme in Ireland, Trinity will look toward the nationwide testing model to predict its potential outcomes. It must therefore expect to encounter the same difficulties as met by the HSE earlier in the pandemic. One such barrier to effective testing is complacency. There is a risk that participants, upon receiving a negative test result, will dispense with the normal social distancing guidelines.
It is tempting to look at a negative test result as an exemption from the strictest of these rules. This, however, is a dangerous precedent to set – especially among a fatigued population of students who feel deprived of many of the hallmarks of a traditional college social life. This potential shortcoming is not insurmountable, but it will require a group effort to tailor our social lives in accordance with government advice.
As quickly as we have become accustomed to wearing masks in public, so too will we have to adjust to regular testing.
Despite its potential shortfalls, the scheme is a positive development after months of doubt as to how, and if, on-campus learning will return. If run effectively, it will inspire confidence in the college community that the virus is easily identifiable and under control. If it proves successful, the data it provides will see Trinity become a model for future systems of on-campus testing in other universities.
Horror stories of painful nasal swab tests abound, but this potential deterrent is negated by the use of “non invasive” testing instead. An efficient system will see tests become no more than a brief disturbance to students’ usual weekly schedule, and will allow for the smooth continuation of in-person learning.
The term “social responsibility” is thrown around a lot these days, and sometimes popular media would have you believe that this burden rests solely on people under 30. But that’s what it is – a duty to change our behaviour in order to protect the people around us.
As quickly as we have become accustomed to wearing masks in public, so too will we have to adjust to regular testing. It will be incumbent upon us to avail of whatever testing is made available to us on campus to allow for a straightforward transition to this new way of living. A weekly coronavirus test may not be an attractive prospect – but it is a worthwhile one.