On Jan. 23, environmental management and protection sophomore Tess McIntyre was convinced her positive COVID-19 test result was a mistake.
“It was really stressful when my results first came back,” McIntyre said. “I had no idea where I could have gotten it, and I was very surprised.”
McIntyre was asymptomatic and her roommates and friends tested negative, but still she went into isolation, where students couldn’t retest or double check their results.
Five days later, McIntyre learned she was one of the 41 students who received false positives from human error; a misidentification of testing samples at Avellino Labs. Some off-campus residents received false positives too, but they don’t seem to be included in the 41 case count.
After a call from the university’s medical team, 28 asymptomatic students who received false positives were cleared to leave isolation completely — including McIntyre. Some students weren’t.
The remaining 13 students who received false positives may have been exposed to COVID-19 by isolating with students who were actually infected. These students have since been quarantining in a new room, and none have tested positive as of Wednesday, according to University Spokesperson Matt Lazier.
Though not directly in response to the testing error, Cal Poly is transitioning away from Avellino Labs to rely fully on the university’s in-house saliva testing program by mid-February, Lazier said. He says this shift will give Cal Poly control over quickly verifying results and re-testing when necessary.
President Jeffrey Armstrong said Cal Poly will continue isolating COVID-positive students in groups because there have been so few false positives, and students are low-risk for severe cases of COVID-19.
“Vulnerable students, they’re not required to be here, so housing positive students together is very appropriate for this pandemic,” Armstrong said.
But students who experienced the false positive error firsthand say there is more Cal Poly could’ve done — and more they should do — to improve COVID-19 procedures.
Cal Poly put mechanical engineering sophomore Bjorn Thorsen in an isolation room with three other people — but only Thorsen and one of his roommates received the false positives.
“Housing exposed us to Covid,” Thorsen posted on Reddit. “Someone at Avellino messed up, and housing messed up by putting people in ‘isolation’ with three other people.”
Now, testing daily, Thorsen is quarantining in a new room and has to test negative for 10 days straight.
Computer science freshman Cole Turner said he had two roommates in isolation for five days after they all tested positive on the same day. But on the last day of their isolation, one more student was added to their room. So when Turner got the call that he and his original roommates received false positives but their newest roommate did not, Turner said he was in disbelief.
“I mean, honestly, I don’t think I’ve been that upset in a while,” Turner said. “If the kid didn’t move in for like, another hour or two hours, I wouldn’t be in this situation at all.”
Turner said at the very least, Cal Poly should only isolate students together that tested on the same day. Additionally, he says, it seemed like housing had enough rooms to isolate people without any roommates at all.
Turner tested negative while in quarantine, and says he’s leaving on Feb. 6 at midnight — the soonest he can leave.
Low confidence in campus testing
Avellino Labs is a global third-party contractor that processes asymptomatic COVID-19 tests for Cal Poly’s Ongoing Testing Program. Upon Cal Poly’s request to investigate, Avellino Labs said they found 42 of about 10,000 tests during the week of Jan. 17 that were false positives as a result of an “isolated incident of human error,” according to Avellino Labs Spokesperson Lisa Spicer.
Spicer says that besides the human error, Avellino testing has a true positive rate of 97% and true negative rate of 100%.
Students point out that there have been other issues with Avellino.
Environmental management and protection sophomore Sophia Barwegen — who received a false positive — said that she also had a test result “lost” toward the end of fall quarter.
Barwegen got tested before leaving campus to go home for winter break, but she received an email telling her that her result was lost, her portal still depicting the test result as pending.
“I would like to say that I wish I had more faith,” Barwegen said. “I think it just raised a lot of questions about the university’s testing process.”
Both Barwegen and Thorsen said Avellino’s portal system — where students can make appointments and see their test results — has often had technical issues.
“I don’t know if they knew something like this was going to happen, but I definitely think Avellino was not ready for this amount of tests,” Thorsen said.
While it is possible to file a lawsuit against labs in some cases — such as a mislabelling of testing samples — Lazier did not disclose whether Cal Poly will take legal action.
Students call for improvements on Cal Poly’s part
Barwegen said that multiple students requested a retest while in isolation because they were asymptomatic, but Cal Poly didn’t allow it.
“I think that should be an option for all students who are asymptomatic and test positive — it could avoid exposure,” Barwegen said.
Thorsen said that it seems saliva testing will be much better, but it’s something that could have been implemented sooner.
“It seemed like every other school had some mass testing program already in place and [Avellino] came like, mid last quarter,” Thorsen said.
Students also think that the university’s untimely communication throughout the isolation process made it all the more difficult.
There were planned daily check-in calls from campus health officials that did not happen according to Turner and Barwegen. And when moving into isolation, Barwegen said there was sparse communication and conflicting answers from university staff.
When McIntyre first moved into isolation, an RA called to explain how to get keys to her new room. When she asked whether she’d have a roommate or not, the RA refused to answer.
“I would like to see more communication and a better timeline provided for students because it was really stressful not knowing what I was supposed to do and having to just wait for them to email or call me,” McIntyre said.
“I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy:” Reflecting on isolation
For Barwegen, whose main source of reducing stress is outdoor activities, isolation was “mentally defeating.”
“I think it’s pretty anxiety inducing, for sure,” Barwegen said. “I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy.”
But the false positive error had a ripple effect, too.
Biological sciences senior Lindsay Peria is a lifeguard at the Recreation Center who spent about a week quarantining in her house’s sunroom after her coworker falsely tested positive.
“I don’t have my own room, so in order to not infect all of my roommates, I lived in the sunroom, which is not a real room and it’s mostly outside,” Peria said. “For it to be a false positive was also frustrating because I was basically isolating for no reason. But overall, a false positive is definitely better than the alternative.”
After experiencing isolation with a false positive, Barwegen said it’s important for people to be more understanding toward students who may have gotten COVID-19.
“Oftentimes I had people think that the reason I potentially caught COVID was my fault,” Barwegen said. “Don’t blame [students] for getting COVID — oftentimes they’re just going about their daily lives.”