Changes to COVID reporting policy leave questions about testing at Grinnell


Evan Hein

Students can self-report postive COVID test results to SHAW, to aid in tracking COVID cases on campus.

Molly Wilcoxson, Staff Writer

As the year comes to a close, Grinnell College administration continues to wrestle with the ongoing question of how to handle COVID cases, particularly as restrictions begin to lax statewide due to the end of mandatory test reporting and the approaching end of testing programs such as Test Iowa. 

Since the pandemic, Student Health and Wellness (SHAW) has managed the recording and publication of all positive COVID-19 cases. At the beginning of the pandemic, students could view this message in a separate online portal managed by SHAW. Positive case numbers can now be viewed in the weekly campus memo released by administration.

COVID tracking briefly paused during winter break due to the lack of students on campus, but it resumed again at the start of the spring 2023 semester. 

Terry Mason, the College’s dean of health and wellness, said that, until early March, the campus memo kept a tallying number of positive cases recorded since the beginning of the spring 2023 semester. Effective March 1, the reporting method changed, with the positive case number representing the amount of students who tested positive within the past two weeks. 

“This enables campus community members to assess current conditions and adjust their personal protective measures as appropriate,” wrote Heather Cox, director of emergency management and risk mitigation, in an email to the S&B. 

Also beginning March 1, the College is now tracking strep- and flu-positive cases on campus. 

“What we’re finding now is that students who test positive for influenza or strep are having more severe symptomatology,” said Mason. He also said that SHAW has not recorded any students being hospitalized from COVID in his personal recent memory. 

To track cases, SHAW uses two primary methods to count positive cases on campus. First of all, SHAW provides COVID testing to any students who schedule an appointment, and it keeps track of those who test positive within their facilities. Secondly, SHAW receives word about positive cases directly from students who use Test Iowa, a mail-in testing service. These numbers are then combined and submitted to the weekly campus memo.

Mason said that there are limitations to this method. “We [can] only track what is reported to us,” said Mason. 

If a student tests positive and does not report it to SHAW, then their positive case cannot be reflected in the memo. Mason said that this makes it difficult to calculate an accurate positivity rate, which is why the memo only reports the raw number of positive cases. 

Regarding this possible inaccuracy, Cox wrote, “we have found … that students have been diligent about reporting positive cases and coordinating with SHAW to navigate next steps, so I am confident that our case counts are reliable and accurate.” 

The College’s testing system will face several challenges moving forward, which may have an impact on the campus community. As of April 1, according to Iowa legislation, testing facilities are no longer required to report their number of positive cases to the state. 

“[This makes] it harder to get a clear understanding of what is happening on campus and in the broader community,” wrote Cox. 

In addition to the cessation of mandatory COVID reporting, Test Iowa will only continue to offer at-home COVID tests through the end of 2023, according to the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services and a memo released by SHAW on Feb. 28. Despite this, Steele and Mason said that SHAW will continue to provide in-house testing, and rapid testing options will still be available for purchase in Grinnell. 

“People will always have availability to get tests,” said Mason. “So it’s not going to impact us.”