University of Illinois president says key to stopping coronavirus spread is rapid testing: ‘We will face outbreaks’

University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen warned Friday that the school will face coronavirus outbreaks as students return to campus, but the key to preventing further spread is rapid testing. 

“We will face outbreaks, there’s no question. What we’re going to do is have actionable tests so that we quickly squelch down the outbreak,” Killeen told CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.” “Once you know where the virus is, you can deal with it. If you don’t know where it is, it’s very tricky. It will develop.” 

All students and staff on campus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign must be tested for Covid-19 at least twice a week, Killeen said. The university developed its own rapid, saliva-based coronavirus test that’s similar to Yale University’s test, which is also used by the NBA. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted the University of Illinois’ test emergency use authorization shortly before students returned to class earlier this week. Officials have so far tested 121,000 people and found 248 unique positive cases, Killeen said. The university’s so-called positivity rate, or the percentage of tests that are positive, remains below 1%. 

“It’s going really well,” Killeen said. “We don’t like this virus, we want to crush it, and that’s what we’re doing and we’re doing it on a massive scale.” 

Killeen added that the university is confident in the accuracy of its saliva test, though there may be “a few negative” cases that were actually positive. When someone tests positive, they’re isolated and their close contacts are notified through an app and sent to quarantine as well.  

“The key is time because if we give the virus no time to spread from an infected individual to others, we can stop it’s transmission,” he said.

Some universities have been overwhelmed with coronavirus cases within their first few weeks of reopening. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was forced to move online instruction online after outbreaks sent its positivity rate above 13% and stressed its space for students to quarantine. 

The University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, almost faced a similar fate, halting in-person classes for two weeks before deciding on Friday to allow students to return to class once its positivity rate declined from above 10% to nearly 6%. 

“We think we have a unique ecosystem of safety and containment that I think is very interesting for others to look at,” Killeen said. “This is what I think we need to do to rally attack this virus and not just watch it develop.” 

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