Following Emory’s move to remote learning, over 350 undergraduates remain on Clairmont Campus. Most are from international or low-income backgrounds and had no other option but to stay on campus through the end of the semester. As conditions worsen in Atlanta, they will suffer the consequences of poor management of the pandemic by politicians including President Donald Trump and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. Like countless other health care providers across the U.S., Emory University Student Health Services (EUSHS) does not have enough kits to test those who need them most.
On April 13, Emory converted the Student Activity and Academic Center (SAAC) into a COVID-19 testing site. However, students living on campus cannot be tested at the SAAC unless they have preexisting health conditions, such as asthma or diabetes, or are experiencing acute COVID-19 symptoms. In an interview with the Wheel, Interim Assistant Vice President and Executive Director of EUSHS Sharon Rabinovitz stated that “due to a national shortage of test kits… we have to prioritize the test kits we do have.”
While EUSHS is rightfully prioritizing students with preexisting conditions, given their higher risk of developing severe complications from COVID-19, testing only those students already known to be vulnerable overlooks others in similarly dire straits. Studies have found that individuals of low socioeconomic status are about 10% more likely to have at least one chronic health condition, which increases their likelihood of dying from COVID-19 tenfold. Since low-income students may have subpar health insurance that does not cover tests for underlying conditions, they may be unaware that they even have them and thus unaware of their danger of experiencing life-threatening COVID-19 symptoms. If EUSHS does not expand testing, Emory’s socioeconomically disadvantaged could experience extreme, undue and unexpected suffering at the hands of COVID-19.
Many Atlanta testing sites are drive-through only and require patients to self-administer tests inside their own vehicles. Students living on campus without cars are left without access to many nearby testing sites. Instead, these students will have to rely on Telehealth, an online provider that EUSHS now uses to remotely assess students’ symptoms. Telehealth may help medical professionals decide if a student’s symptoms require official, in-person testing, but it doesn’t allow a doctor to swab a student’s throat and send samples to a lab. Students will have to depend on a medical professional’s over-the-phone analysis of their symptoms for a probable diagnosis, not an official test result. The consequences could be dire; faulty or misleading results could endanger these students and their loved ones. EUSHS staff have been using an online diagnostic algorithm designed by Vital, Emory’s Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response and the Department of Emergency Medicine to help mitigate possible errors, but many students will still be left uncertain about the status of their own health.
The other alternative for students without cars is to travel to testing sites using a ride-booking service or public transportation. But this alternative is dangerous to both students and drivers. While demand for ride-hailing apps has drastically fallen since states began enforcing shelter-in-place orders, some drivers must remain active to make ends meet, meaning students and drivers alike run the risk of contracting COVID-19. The average incubation period for those infected with COVID-19 is about five days, and thus, one asymptomatic driver or passenger could infect dozens before displaying symptoms. Public transportation could also raise the risk of students unwittingly transmitting the virus to others or contracting it themselves. One bus driver died days shortly after making a video about people not covering their coughs, highlighting the severe dangers essential workers face.
EUSHS must take further steps to mitigate these students’ risk. They could add a section in the required pretest assessment to determine which students have cars and consider it when assigning students to test locations. Since testing at the SAAC is available by appointment only, EUSHS could schedule appointments for students who don’t have access to transportation at different hours than those for high-risk students. This would provide students without cars the option to get testing without placing high-risk students in further danger.
While such measures would certainly allow EUSHS to test students more widely and efficiently, our elected leaders deserve the blame for the current testing shortfall. The Trump administration failed to even try to curb the pandemic in its early critical period and initially rolled out faulty testing kits that cost the U.S. valuable time to prepare. At the same time, Georgia politicians like Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) profited from publicly downplaying COVID-19 while privately benefitting from stock trades. On a per-capita basis, the U.S. has tested significantly fewer people than other countries, and many labs are not able to meet the demand for testing. Clearly, the U.S. has mismanaged the testing kits that are vital to fighting COVID-19 and subsequently left the SAAC testing site in its precarious position.
The nationwide testing shortage has rendered many Americans, especially the socioeconomically disadvantaged, uncertain as to whether they have COVID-19. Socioeconomic status must not determine which Emory students receive the lifesaving health care they so desperately need.
The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board.
The Editorial Board is composed of Sean Anderson, Brammhi Balarajan, Zach Ball, Jake Busch, Meredith McKelvey, Andrew Kliewer, Boris Niyonzima, and Ben Thomas.