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Rapid coronavirus testing comes to Northwestern: Here’s what you need to know

Answers to key questions about protocol for the remainder of the school year

BinaxNOW is the rapid coronavirus test kit from Abbott.

When February’s brutal winter weather disrupted the nation’s transportation network, it shut down many aspects of UPS and FedEx for two weeks. As a result, Northwestern was unable to ship its daily batch of coronavirus tests to Color labs in California for processing. 

But with a quick pivot, the University ramped up a new Abbott rapid-test platform, going from a small pilot of a few hundred tests for the Bienen School of Music to 15,000 tests across campus last week.

Now that normal shipping has been restored, Northwestern has developed a plan to administer both Color and Abbott tests for the remainder of Winter Quarter. The new protocols are expected to continue through Spring Quarter as well, dependent on the evolving community health situation.

What’s the difference between the two tests? Who is eligible? And will this affect opportunities for in-person activities? Here are answers to some key questions.

What is the new Abbott test?

Northwestern is partnering with Abbott to use its antigen test, BinaxNOW. The test kit is the size of a credit card, requires no specialized instrumentation and can be used with a complementary app called NAVICA, enabling people who test negative to receive and display results on their phone. The sample is collected with a self-administered nasal swab.

What is an antigen test?

Antigens, like the ones found in COVID-19, are proteins of a virus that can be detected during the infection cycle. Antigen tests can indicate high quantities of this protein in an active infection. Rapid antigen tests are especially powerful in controlling the spread of the virus on campus because they quickly help identify people when they are infectious and at the highest risk of spreading the disease to others. 

Who can get the rapid test?

Compliance requirements vary depending on who you are and how often you are on campus. But all students, faculty and staff are eligible to take rapid tests as frequently as you like.

Why is Northwestern using two different tests now?

Along with masks, social distancing and personal hygiene, testing is a key part of the overall effort to protect our campus community. When used together, the Color and Abbott tests supplement each other by screening for the virus in different ways and on different timelines. Color requires sophisticated lab equipment and is more time intensive but it delivers results that are highly sensitive. Abbott, on the other hand, can be done immediately on-site. When used more frequently, the nearly instant results can be helpful in quickly identifying those who are asymptomatic but have the virus and are likely to be infectious.

How quickly will I get my BinaxNOW test results?

The rapid test process should take you less than 15 minutes onsite. Once you complete the test, you will receive results via the app within 30 minutes.

How long is a negative test result valid?

If your results are negative, you will see a green NAVICA pass on the “Pass” tab of the app. A negative result means the test did not detect COVID-19 antigens that indicate someone is currently sick and potentially infectious. As with any diagnostic test, the result is based on a person’s health condition at the time of testing, and a negative result one day does not mean you might not become infectious, or positive, later on.

What if my rapid test result is positive?

If your results are positive, the result will be considered a “presumptive positive.” Self-quarantine immediately, and the COVID Response Team will reach out shortly to provide guidance on next steps. This will include coordinating another follow-up confirmatory COVID-19 test. For students, this test will take place at Northwestern Health Service, and for faculty and staff, this test will take place at a Northwestern Medicine Immediate Care Center location that you agree on with the case manager.  

When does Color testing resume?

Color testing restarted this week. Most students who are in the Evanston/Chicago area or interacting with the Northwestern community need to complete one Color test per week. You can continue to complete your Color test onsite at the Jacobs Center, but you will now enter through the East entrance to Owen L. Coon Auditorium. The pick-up/drop-off locations will be closed this week, but they will begin to reopen the week of March 8. You can restart your Color testing any day of this week that works for you. Plus, you’ll no longer need to book an appointment in advance to complete your test.

How has testing compliance been, and what does this mean for Spring Quarter?

More than 90% of students have remained compliant with testing protocol this quarter. Northwestern officials hope this increased testing will continue to level-off the number of positive cases so the University can increase in-person engagement opportunities after Spring Break.

What if I still have questions?

As always, visit the COVID-19 site for comprehensive information and resources. Check the official COVID-19 dashboard to see where Northwestern stands in terms of number of tests processed and overall positivity rate. And reach out to with any questions or issues. 

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