The Difference Between Testing and Screening for COVID-19

By Christina Moylan, October 16, 2020
A message from Christina Moylan, Director of Public Health Emergency Preparedness.

Public Health Column introduction video. 

We often receive questions about how we are testing and screening for COVID-19. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they describe two different strategies that we are deploying to help protect your health during this pandemic. They are both in use this fall on campus, even while most students are remote, and will continue into the spring. 

Most of us have experienced a situation where we have not felt well and have visited a health care provider who may perform a test to help diagnose the illness. The symptoms and the test signify that you may have an infection. You will likely stay home or start saying things like “Don’t get too close; I am not feeling well.” However, an estimated 40% of people can become infected with COVID-19 yet remain asymptomatic. This is an extremely challenging characteristic of COVID-19. People who are asymptomatic don’t experience any symptoms and therefore do not know they are infected with the virus, yet they can actively pass it to others.  

"Testing and screening add valuable layers of protection to our management of the spread of COVID-19."

Christina Moylan, Director of Public Health Emergency Preparedness

Coronavirus testing

Coronavirus testing site. (Photo Credit: Natalie Daffinee '09)

Therefore, testing people only if they show symptoms is a less effective approach to stop the spread of COVID-19. Routine testing helps us find people with the virus who may not even realize that they are carriers. We can then isolate them and quarantine any close contacts to make sure that the virus does not continue to spread, especially to people with health conditions who could develop a more severe form of COVID-19 disease. 

Higher education institutions are using a wide range of testing frequencies to mitigate spread. This ranges from no testing at all, to random testing, testing only symptomatic individuals, or testing all individuals on a regular basis. Researchers at the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College found that only 6% of institutions with an enrollment of more than 5,000 students are testing on a routine basis. In prioritizing public health, Ithaca College has chosen to be part of that 6% with our weekly testing requirement for students and high contact employees, while employees approved to access campus with lower contact while here test every other week. We will continue a routine testing program in the spring.

Testing and screening add valuable layers of protection to our management of the spread of COVID-19. These strategies join other efforts of our campus community to protect our respiratory health, like the 600+ individuals who received their flu vaccine last week from our Hammond Health Center providers. These small sacrifices and contributions by each of us are keeping our campus operational and well-prepared for a spring return.  

Let’s keep our numbers low, and our spirits high!     


Christina Moylan, Ph.D.    
Director of Public Health Emergency Preparedness