Fourteen results from UMD’s COVID tests were miscommunicated to campus community members

A sign directs people to COVID-19 testing in the Stadium on Sept. 4, 2020. (Joe Ryan/The Diamondback)

Of the roughly 20,000 coronavirus tests the University of Maryland has administered, the results of 14 were miscommunicated to community members, according to information provided by a university spokesperson.

Twelve of those errors occurred after a third-party vendor mislabeled the results of the tests, wrote spokesperson Katie Lawson in a text message Wednesday. All issues have since been resolved, she wrote. The errors account for less than 0.1 percent of university-administered tests.

The mix-ups have impacted students across campus, some of whom were initially told they had tested positive for COVID-19, only to find out later that their test had actually been negative.

Some incidents have had greater implications than others. Residents of the Sigma Kappa sorority chapter house were forced to quarantine last week after a member tested positive. But on Monday — four days after her initial result came back — the member learned that her test had in fact been negative and residents could return to the house.

The cause of this incident was not due to the mislabeling of the test results, Lawson wrote, but she declined to elaborate further.

In an interview with The Diamondback on Wednesday, university President Darryll Pines took responsibility for the situation and expressed sympathy for those who had been impacted.

“We would never want someone to feel like they were positive when they were not. It’s an unfortunate mistake,” Pines said. “We take full ownership of that. I take full ownership of that.”

[UMD lifts at least 10 suspensions after issuing 19 for noncompliance with COVID-19 rules]

The students at the receiving end of the mix-ups said the ordeals were stressful.

Paxton Kerstetter learned of her positive result last Thursday night, and she immediately moved out of her Courtyards apartment.

“I just ran in real quick, threw a bunch of random things in a box and came down, put [it] in my boyfriend’s car and then drove back [to Gaithersburg],” said Kerstetter, a junior environmental science and policy major.

As a result of the initial notification, her boyfriend had to take time off work, and state health officials contacted his boss as part of its contact tracing efforts, she said. She found out Friday night that her test was actually negative. 

Meanwhile, even before Sara Garbison was entangled in the testing mishap, the start of her freshman year had already been challenging: The university-mandated safety measures and lack of roommates have made it harder to meet new people, she said. Learning that she had apparently tested positive, and that she and some of her friends would have to quarantine for two weeks, was hard to grapple with, she said.

“There was always that looming fear that someone that I knew, or even I, was going to get the coronavirus,” the civil engineering major said. “It was gonna ruin [the start of college] for me and for anyone else around me.”

Garbison received a call from the University Health Center Saturday morning, informing her of the positive result. She went home and isolated herself in her basement, only seeing her family from the bottom of the staircase. 

But on Sunday night, her mom received an email that Garbison had in fact been negative. She returned to the campus on Tuesday, but she remains worried about the university’s testing system.

“We’re just gonna test more and more students, and there’s gonna be more of these issues if they don’t fix something,” she said.

The health center will continue working with the lab and will look into how results are inserted into the university’s database, Pines said.

“I commend our University Health Center staff who have literally killed themselves for three consecutive weeks working on testing every human being that was coming back to campus,” Pines said. “They understand how the error occurred, and they’re working towards a proper fix.”

Editor-in-chief Daisy Grant contributed to this story.

[Several UMD students living in Cumberland Hall moved to quarantine housing

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