The Issue with SHIELD Testing

Megan Krok, Editor-in-Chief

Students at Joliet West who participate in some extracurricular activities, like sports, are required to do a weekly COVID-19 SHIELD testing. But since the beginning of the school year, those who are tested on a regular basis are beginning to question whether the witnessed unsanitary conditions of SHIELD testing may be contributing to the increased rate of false positive test results for students.

At the beginning of the school year, District 204 superintendent Dr. Karla Guseman sent an email to parents and students regarding general back-to-school information, including the return of extracurricular activities. In this email, Dr. Guseman comments that in order for these extracurriculars to take place, certain mitigations will be followed. “One of these mitigations is our SHIELD saliva testing.” She continues, “The SHIELD test identifies pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals, which means that they can potentially quarantine before they begin transmitting the virus.”

According to a SHIELD test fact sheet attached to Dr. Guseman’s email, “covidSHIELD achieved a sensitivity of 96% and a specificity of 99%, meaning it is a highly accurate test for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material.”

While this statistic may be true, the SHIELD test has given multiple positive results for Joliet West students who have received their own negative test results. The concern then is in regards to whether the test provides false positive results, and if the unsanitary conditions of the SHIELD testing rooms could be to blame.

Joliet West senior Evelynn Mantia was out for an entire week in September when she received a false positive result from her weekly SHIELD test for girls’ golf. Mantia took a PCR COVID-19 diagnostic test after receiving her positive SHIELD results and tested negative. Mantia, infuriated, was not allowed to return to school even after proving she tested negative.

“Mandatory SHIELD testing conducted in an unsanitary environment causes more damage to students that help,” Mantia said. “Creating false positives takes away students’ rights to a quality education and removes them from experiencing the benefits of high school.”

To preface, the SHIELD test uses saliva to determine if someone is carrying COVID-19. Once students enter the SHIELD testing room, they are given a tube to spit into. Students are also given funnels that snap onto the tubes to make the saliva collection easier. Once the tubes are filled roughly halfway with saliva, students remove the funnels and place a cap on the tubes by themselves.

Up until the week of October 11, the SHIELD testing room was in the North Gym. There were         three workers in this testing room the first few weeks. These workers helped students register their SHIELD tests, distribute tubes that would hold students’ saliva, and overall keep the testing process running smoothly.

However, the sanitary practices of the workers were inconsistent. On some testing days, only one or two of the workers would be wearing gloves. Keep in mind that all of the workers are at some point handling the testing tubes.

There are multiple points during the testing process that leave opportunities for cross-contamination as well. The unused tubes sit in an opened plastic box; the tubes are all jumbled together with no individual packaging. The workers who reach into this box are not always gloved, either. Other times, the unused tubes and funnels would be left out on the tube distribution table with no proper packaging to keep them sterile.

Once students fill their tubes with saliva, they are asked to grab a plastic twist-on cap to seal their tubes. This is where the lack of cleanliness is striking. Students, with unsanitized hands, grab their cap from a cardboard box sitting on a foldable chair. Just like the tubes, the caps are in no way sterile, especially since multiple students are fishing around in the same box for a cap. 

After the tubes are capped, students wait in a line to turn in their tubes. In this line, social distancing is not being enforced. A couple of students also fail to wear their masks correctly.

“The concerns we have gotten from our shield test workers is students not staying the 6 feet away from each other as their mask is down,” said Joliet West Vice Principal Jo Wooten.

Once it is time for students to return their tubes, it is the students–not the workers–who place the tubes into a container that is holding roughly 70 other students’ tubes. Students’ unsanitized hands are now touching other tubes, yet another cross contamination.

Now that students have fished around in a communal box for caps and have now touched the test tubes of their fellow students, they are told to sanitize their hands. This is arguably the most shocking part of the SHIELDS testing process. In order to reduce contamination, students should be asked to sanitize their hands before and after the testing process. It is useless for them to sanitize after the fact.

Although it is not proven, it’s obvious now how one can think it is likely the unsanitary SHIELD testing conditions may be part of the reason for some of the false positive test results at Joliet West. Safety and hygiene precautions need to be at the forefront to create an improved, cleanlier testing process.

Tiger Tales has reached out to Dean Patty Sewing, who is in charge of SHIELD testing, for comment as well as Director of Human Resources Christopher Olson. Both have declined to comment, but have informed the third party company responsible for SHIELD testing. According to Olson, this company has been made aware of the sanitation concerns and will be holding a meeting with staff members to review safety protocols.

The following photos were taken in the SHIELD testing room and show the tubes and caps left unattended and open to cross contamination (Megan Krok)