Rice Realizes Dozens of False Positive Tests Were Behind Shift To Online Classes

It looks like some testing snafus led to most of the positive COVID cases detected at Rice in recent days.
It looks like some testing snafus led to most of the positive COVID cases detected at Rice in recent days. Screenshot
After 81 members of the Rice University community tested positive for COVID-19 over the past week and a half — most of whom were fully vaccinated against the virus — and the school’s test positivity rate surged, Rice’s leadership acted swiftly. On Thursday, the school delayed this week’s start of classes by two days. pivoted to full online learning for at least the first two weeks of the semester, and encouraged students who could delay moving in to do so if possible.

But on Sunday night, the chair of Rice’s Crisis Management Advisory Committee Kevin Kirby emailed students that Rice had discovered dozens of those troubling positive test results were false positives, a fact that was uncovered after extensive re-testing of those individuals revealed issues with one of the school’s COVID-19 testing partners.

“We’re going to make some operational adjustments that will be announced shortly, but right now we anticipate returning to fully-in person classroom instruction in two weeks,” Kirby wrote in an email to Rice students, given that “These testing data anomalies were part of the reason we decided to take most of our classes on-line for the first two weeks [or the semester],” in addition to high local case counts in Houston and Harris County thanks to the Delta variant. "We’ll largely leave those plans in place," wrote Kirby, "because many of our students and faculty have already made their own plans in accordance with that schedule."

“When we examined the results a few days ago, we suspected something was wrong,” Kirby wrote. He explained that over 90 percent of those positive tests came from a single test provider, over 90 percent of the positives were in fully-vaccinated individuals, and three-quarters of those testing positive had no symptoms at all. In terms of contact tracing, the only potential “cluster” in the positives seemed to be among folks who were close by to one particular testing location.

After uncovering those “very unusual patterns,” Kirby said Rice’s COVID response team thought the data suggested “there was a possible issue with a testing provider rather than a broader campus outbreak.” Sure enough, it turns out the testing provider in question “had begun using a different protocol than they had previously used at Rice, resulting in significant difference in how test results are decided,” Kirby wrote. “This change in testing protocol had not been disclosed to Rice. We asked that they immediately revert to their prior testing protocol and they have done so.”

Kirby said that Rice then retested “about 50 people who initially tested positive.” Each of them was tested two more times on two different days by two different test providers, “and all but one came back negative.”

Returning students whom Rice had asked to delay their move-ins until after September 3 “are now welcome to move in as soon as they want,” Kirby wrote.

“Our commitment is to be fast, flexible and nimble responding to anything involving the safety of individuals and the overall health of our community,” Kirby wrote. “We recognize and regret that these testing anomalies have caused tremendous difficulties for all involved.”
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Schaefer Edwards is a staff writer at the Houston Press who covers local and regional news. A lifelong Texan and adopted Houstonian, he loves NBA basketball and devouring Tex-Mex while his cat watches in envy.
Contact: Schaefer Edwards