An increase in the number of COVID-19 cases at Ellsworth Community College in recent weeks is being attributed to a new practice of doing surveillance testing of the entire athletic department – athletes and coaches – every week.

While Division I schools like the University of Iowa and Iowa State University are required to regularly test their student athletes for COVID-19, no such rule exists for community colleges. But after hearing about a testing program at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, ECC Athletic Director Nate Forsyth proposed a similar one at the campus in Iowa Falls.

“It was just something that really made sense as we’re progressing throughout the semester,” Forsyth said.

Surveillance testing began the week of March 1. According to the Ellsworth Community College COVID-19 dashboard, which tracks the number of student cases at the school, there were six positive tests reported the week of March 1, and seven reported the week of March 8. It is unclear how many of those positive tests came from the athletic department. Forsyth said testing is conducted every Monday. It takes about 48 hours to receive results of the PCR tests.

ECC Provost Dr. Martin Reimer said that in most cases, the students who test positive have been asymptomatic. Catching those cases and isolating the students prevents transmission of the disease.

“I think it’s good to know what’s happening as opposed to not because then you’re able to respond and potentially limit the impact that it does have,” Reimer said. “A lot of our students are living on campus in confined spaces. For us to make sure that we limit the spread as quickly as possible and get folks quarantined, that’s what we’re focused on.”

The testing is conducted by an outside company and is not funded by the college. Forsyth said the cost of the test is first run through a student’s health insurance. If the cost is rejected by insurance, the company uses CARES money to pay for the test.

At least one recent positive test prompted the cancellation of two volleyball matches this week. The team’s small roster coupled with CDC quarantine guidelines made it impossible to play the match as scheduled. Forsyth said the goal of the testing is to keep student athletes healthy and able to compete.

“Our number one priority has been we want to play games and compete. We didn’t get that opportunity last year in some of our sports and some of them got cut short, so really for me, it’s doing everything that we can to compete and to have a season for these student athletes,” he said. “Being able to test, for me, gives us a peace of mind of knowing where we’re at and knowing that we’re getting on the bus and everybody is good.”

Forsyth said students have accepted testing and quarantine as a way of life for now.

“It’s just part of being a college athlete at this point,” he said.

Many people on the Ellsworth Community College campus – and college campuses across the state – are still waiting to be vaccinated. The Iowa Department of Public Health prioritized K-12 educators in its vaccination rollout plan, excluding people who work in higher education. And while some Iowans who live in congregate settings are eligible to receive the vaccine, the state’s guidelines specifically exclude people who live in college residence halls. Reimer said some faculty and staff have been able to receive the vaccine because of their age, underlying health conditions or because of the nature of their work – nursing, for example – but most are still waiting for their turn for a vaccine shot.

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