U. of I.’s COVID protocols praised, copied for new semester after campus saw no hospitalizations or deaths in the fall

After a surge in cases in the first few weeks of classes, the state’s flagship university was able to keep the on-campus positivity rate below 1% last semester.

SHARE U. of I.’s COVID protocols praised, copied for new semester after campus saw no hospitalizations or deaths in the fall

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign used a wide-scale testing program in the fall.


When the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced last summer it planned to bring its entire campus back in the fall by using an unproven test its own researchers developed, it was seen as a big gamble.

But after a semester during which the school saw its positivity rate plunge below 1%, with no major outbreaks, hospitalizations or deaths, the university’s testing protocol has become a model. And despite a spike in cases nationwide, the self-developed test is helping UIUC feel confident there won’t be a huge spike in cases when students start arriving for spring semester this week.

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Across the nation, other universities took notice of UIUC’s success and are adopting the protocol. The University of Notre Dame started using the saliva-based tests in the fall, and the University of Wisconsin and Millikin University downstate are rolling out the protocol this month. 

State schools in Illinois are also partnering with the flagship university. Northern Illinois University started using UIUC’s testing protocol last week, and Illinois State University will begin using the tests as soon as it receives emergency authorization from the FDA, according to spokesmen from both universities. 

U. of I. officials say the stats show their program worked as well as could be expected.

“We performed more than a million tests across campus throughout the fall semester,” said Martin Burke, chemistry professor and chair of the SHIELD: Target, Test, Tell committee that developed the testing process. “Zero hospitalizations, no deaths, thank goodness, and kept classes open, research open and businesses open, so we were really happy with the way it all played out.”

Chemistry Professor Paul Hergenrother, who also helped develop the protocol, predicted the combination of rigorous testing and more and more people receiving the coronavirus vaccination could result in a campus’ positivity rate of “close to zero” this semester.

“Initially, there was the normal growing pains that one would associate with a massive operation like this,” Hergenrother said. “ ... Now, it’s all really good.”


University of Illinois Chemistry Professor Paul Hergenrother


New way of testing

Hergenrother started brainstorming a COVID-19 testing solution as soon as the university closed campus in March. He said he quickly realized everyone on campus would need to be repeatedly tested to prevent asymptomatic people from unknowingly spreading the virus. 

“The insidious thing about the virus is that you could get it today, but you won’t test positive today, you won’t test positive tomorrow,” Hergenrother said. “There’s a need for repeated replicate testing over multiple days to really confirm that you don’t have it.”

But the nasal swab tests commonly used at the start of the pandemic required health care professionals to administer the test, were expensive and would be extremely uncomfortable for people getting tested on a regular basis. 

That’s why he and his team started looking into saliva-based testing, he said.

Researchers began a six-week “blitz” to develop a quick, efficient and inexpensive COVID-19 test that had to be ready by the end of June if there was any chance to have the protocol fully operating by the start of fall semester, Burke said.

After thousands of different attempts, Burke said the team of researchers found the solution: Heating the saliva sample at 95 degrees for 30 minutes killed the virus enough to make it safe for health workers to handle while still highlighting whether the virus is present. And converting the on-campus veterinary diagnostic lab into a coronavirus testing facility allowed for quick turnaround times on testing, giving the university confidence in welcoming thousands of students back on campus. 


Dr. Robin Holland, who is part of the COVID-19 research team for the University of Illinois Urbana- Champaign, runs tests on saliva samples in labs housed at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Illinois.

University of Illinois/Fred Zwicky

Unexpected surge in cases

Testing alone isn’t enough to curb the spread of the virus, Hergenrother said. Quickly isolating people who test positive is just as vital.

“If you get a test and you don’t get the result for five days, well, unless people have been isolated for those five days, then they’ve been transmitting,” Hergenrother said. “You remove those people from interacting with others that are positive, and you’re going to drive the numbers way down.”

The protocol eventually put in to place included twice-weekly mandatory surveillance testing on campus with test results available within 12 hours, a key to the school’s success, Burke said.


A testing site on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana-Champaign.

University of Illinois/Fred Zwicky

Even so, there was a small number of students who — even after they tested positive — didn’t isolate and even went to parties. This led to a larger-than-expected surge in cases on campus after the first week of classes, including 230 new cases in a single day. The university feared if cases continued at that pace they could see 8,000 infections for the semester.

On Sept. 2, the university urged students to stay home for two weeks except for essential activities and threatened suspensions for students who didn’t follow instructions from the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District. More than 1,000 students had been disciplined — including some being removed from campus — for violating coronavirus protocols as of late October, the school said in a statement at the time

But the school eventually got students to comply by involving them in the decision-making process, said UIUC junior Tyeese Braslavsky, a student representative on the SHIELD committee. She said that was key to the program’s success, since it depended heavily on student cooperation.

Through the end of class Nov. 20, nearly 3,900 people tested positive, according to university data. The vast majority — more than 3,200 cases — were undergrads, with a third of those living in private or Greek housing. The remaining cases were split between grad students, campus staff and others who regularly came to campus.


UIUC junior Tyeese Braslavsky, of Buffalo Grove


“I’m incredibly impressed with the work that was being put in by everyone on the team,” she said.

‘Hang in there’

What’s more, the protocol was also successful in stopping the spread to the larger community, officials said.

Contact tracing investigations — conducted by the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District — found no direct relationship of positive cases on campus leading to outbreaks in the area, said Awais Vaid, the district’s deputy administrator and epidemiologist.

The start of spring semester will again draw thousands of students from hometowns across the world as they return to campus, posing another potential for an increase in positive cases. At the health department’s recommendation, UIUC delayed its first day of classes to Jan. 25, Vaid said. Dorms will still open Monday to allow students a week to self-isolate upon their return.

Burke said there will be a two-week “onboarding” process where all students will have to receive a negative COVID-19 test, and students are advised to go out only for essential activities. The order intends to limit “potentially dangerous socialization” before it happens, Burke said. 

Braslavsky, who will continue to take classes remotely this semester at her Buffalo Grove home, said students need to stay vigilant, even with the vaccine rolling out.

“The pandemic is still here, and it will be here, probably for the entirety of spring semester,” Braslavsky said.

Burke said it’s important to acknowledge the reality of “pandemic fatigue” nearly a year into the pandemic. 

But, he said, “we’ve got to hang in there.”

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