Students scrambled to find COVID-19 tests as vending machines were out of service, one for nearly two weeks
AU most recently restocked the machines with new tests on Sept. 11
Megha Rastogi, a sophomore in the School of International Service, lives with an immunocompromised roommate. When she realized she’d been exposed to COVID-19, she looked everywhere for a test.
“I don't know if I would be able to forgive myself if something happened to her because of me,” Rastogi said. “I really wanted to stay vigilant about the test.”
She said she checked the main campus COVID-19 test vending machine, CVS, Target and Whole Foods, all to no avail. The only option she found cost $30 on GoPuff, which she couldn’t afford. When she got back to her dorm, she eventually found a test from another student on her floor and tested positive.
Rastogi is not the only American University student who spent the first weeks of classes scrambling to find COVID-19 tests.
An Eagle investigation now shows that three of the four machines across AU’s properties were out of stock for days while students and campus organizations said they saw an increase in COVID-19 cases. The Eagle found that the only rapid test vending machine on AU’s main campus was out of service from at least Aug. 31 — the first day Eagle reporters checked the machines — through Sept. 11. Eagle reporters also confirmed that machines in the Washington College of Law and the Spring Valley Building were out of stock from at least Sept. 9 and Sept. 7, respectively.
Students noticed machines were out of stock for days on end as concern about COVID-19 grew during the second week of classes. The machines were restocked on Sept. 11, but the University didn’t communicate with the student body that the machines had been empty until after they restocked the machines. Students also reported that tests had been out of stock at nearby stores and said they were concerned that the tests in AU’s machines were past their labeled expiration dates.
Concerns from community members about COVID-19 on campus have risen over the past week with some clubs and classes moving online. Theater club Quills and Capes announced in an Instagram post that the group was postponing two events, all due to “a large number of covid cases” in the Department of Performing Arts.
Though AU no longer maintains a public count of student self-reported cases on campus, COVID-19 hospitalizations in D.C. are on an upward trend — an indicator of case numbers in the area. According to the CDC’s most recent data from Sept. 2, the number of hospitalizations per 100,000 people in the District is nearly twice the national average.
Since May 2023, the University has said it is distributing free rapid, at-home COVID-19 tests in four vending machines located on its various properties around Northwest D.C.
On Sept. 11, Raymond Ou, vice president for student affairs, and Sarah Baldassaro, chief of staff to University President Sylvia Burwell, emailed the AU community about campus health resources. The email informed students about the previously empty machines and said that they were now restocked.
Elizabeth Deal, assistant vice president for community and internal communication, told The Eagle that the University chose to message the community when University officials were sure that tests were available again.
Two of the other machines, located at the Washington College of Law and in the Spring Valley Building, were also out of service for several days during the second week of classes.
“Across the country, supply chain challenges continue to impact the availability of tests at retail pharmacies, college campuses, and health clinics,” Elizabeth Deal wrote in an email to The Eagle. “Our supplier, ShieldT3, experienced a supply chain issue … This was resolved as quickly as possible, and machines are now fully stocked with free rapid tests.”
Deal said that the University was expecting two shipments of tests from its supplier, Shield T3, one the week of Aug. 14 and the second the week of Aug. 28 but that supply chain issues delayed the shipments. The University restocked machines after it received one of the shipments the week of Aug. 21 and the other on Sept. 11, according to Deal.
The only machine that The Eagle confirmed was working before Sept. 11 is located in a sub-basement of an AU-owned office building on Connecticut Avenue NW in Van Ness. WAMU, the D.C. NPR member station owned by the University, occupies most of the building, with other AU departments occupying the top three floors.
The Eagle accessed that building's machine only after making an appointment with a WAMU producer to let an Eagle reporter into the building. From the ground-floor lobby, the machine was behind two more controlled-access doors that only staff who work in the building could open. The only other way to the machine was through the garage, but swipe access was also required to get from the garage into the vending machine's hallway.
The test that The Eagle collected from the Connecticut Avenue building's machine said that it expired in July, although in February the FDA extended the expiration date for that test and others until December.
“There are a limited number of COVID tests circulating around campus that have expiration dates that have passed,” Deal said. “The Food and Drug Administration extended the shelf-life of these tests beyond the labeled expiration date, after which remaining tests in vending machines were labeled to reflect their continued efficacy.”
Deal says the newest shipment of COVID tests, which are now in the machines, are set to expire in December 2023.
WAMU visuals editor Tyrone Turner told The Eagle he retrieved a test from the machine last week. Before trying the vending machine, Turner said, "I checked two CVS [stores] and a Walgreens and they were all out of tests. Honestly, I didn't even look whether [the test] was expired."
Lilliana Silver, a senior in the School of Public Affairs and the College of Arts and Sciences, said she believes she got the last test from the vending machine at WCL on Sept. 5 because the machine displayed an out of service message after dispensing the test. To access the machine she had to follow a friend who attends WCL through a controlled-access door. She said she looked at multiple other stores in the area and at the vending machines on AU’s other properties before going to WCL.
Silver and her roommate, both symptomatic at the time, tested negative after she got the test pack from WCL on Sept 5., but tested positive two days later.
After Silver tested positive, she checked her test from WCL again to see that the packaging said it had expired in October 2022. The Eagle confirmed that the FDA had extended the test’s expiration until October 2023, but Silver was not aware of the extension and said she was worried the test had given her a false negative result and caused her to expose more people.
At the time, The Eagle confirmed that none of the machines indicated that tests might have extended expiration dates, and AU did not previously inform the community on how to check tests’ expiration dates.
The Eagle also checked the University’s KN95 mask distribution sites and found that only two — the first-floor information desk at Bender Library and the first-floor information desk in MGC — were active outside of operating hours.
As concern rose about the empty machines, students and professors reached out to the University with concerns. Silver emailed COVIDhealth@american.edu, the Division of Student Affairs, the Office of the Dean of Students and the Student Health Center detailing her struggle to find a COVID-19 test on and off campus.
Edythe Cook, associate director of administrative services at the Student Health Center, responded about the lack of tests saying that the rise in cases nationally had led to supply chain issues with rapid tests, making it difficult for AU to find tests. She said that the University had obtained some additional tests and distributed them at the SafetyFest fair on Sept. 7, but these tests did not fit in the vending machines.
Cook also said that tests had become available at the Student Health Center the prior week, but when an Eagle reporter asked for a test at the front desk on Sept. 8, they were told tests were not available. The Eagle confirmed that tests were available from the Center beginning Sept. 12.
The Sept. 11 email from Ou and Baldassaro also notes that tests are available at the Student Health Center, though the email didn’t specify when tests became available.
“AU’s emails are mere words when compared with the complete and utter disregard for student health and safety shown through the university’s actions (or lack thereof),” she wrote to the University. “If AU is going to claim that they will provide COVID tests to students for free but not maintain the vending machines to ensure that they are operative and supplying valid tests, the promise is useless and more harmful than helpful as it promotes a false sense of security.”
Cook responded saying that the rise in cases nationally had led to supply chain issues with rapid tests, making it difficult for AU to find tests.
Since the machines have been restocked, the tests now have stickers stating the extended expiration dates. According to Deal, staff from the Student Health Center now monitor the machines for usage to ensure the tests are in-date.
Deal wrote in an email to The Eagle that the SHC confirms AU has “provided hundreds of tests via vending machines, during SafetyFest, and by appointment at the SHC.”
Still, students spent those first few weeks anxious about finding tests.
“American University’s negligence in this matter is directly harming the entire DC, Maryland, and Virginia communities,” Silver wrote in her email to the University. “And it is absolutely necessary that something be done about it to prevent further infection.”
Correction: A previous version of this article's headline didn't specify that only one vending machine was out of stock for as long as 12 days. The article has been updated to reflect that. A previous version of this article's subhead didn't specify that Sept. 11 was the most recent restock after the Aug. 21 restock. The article has been updated to reflect that.
Walker Whalen and Tyler Davis contributed reporting to this article.
This article was edited by Walker Whalen, Jordan Young and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Luna Jinks.