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University of Arizona's wastewater testing halts potential surge in COVID-19 cases at dorm
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University of Arizona's wastewater testing halts potential surge in COVID-19 cases at dorm

UA President Robert Robbins said researchers testing wastewater from dorms discovered the presence of COVID-19. Two students were subsequently sent to isolated quarters.

University of Arizona officials say its researchers may have prevented a surge in COVID-19 cases caused by asymptomatic individuals inside one of its dorms through a research program that tests wastewater from campus housing sites.

Researchers from the UA Water and Energy Sustainable Technology Center testing wastewater from the Likins dorm found an increased concentration of coronavirus Tuesday. Those results led the UA to identify two cases of asymptomatic students.

“We did test — I think there are 311 individuals in that dorm — and we did the antigen test yesterday and found two positive cases there,” said President Robert Robbins. “We’re running down contact tracing their contacts, and those two individuals have gone to isolation yesterday morning.”

The students had to have tested negative for the virus before moving into the dorm.

For months, the researchers have been testing campus dormitories — home to around 5,000 students — student unions and administrative buildings several times a week before finding the virus at the dorm.

Ian Pepper, director of the WEST Center, said in April that “testing the wastewater gives you an idea of the number of cases within a community and if the numbers are increasing or decreasing. The approach can also be used to help determine if an intervention is working to reduce the transmission of the virus.”

Testing wastewater can identify the presence of the coronavirus even if the infected person is asymptomatic. To make sure the first case of the Likins dorm’s wastewater was positive, researchers completed five additional coronavirus diagnostic tests with them all coming back positive.

All other tests from dorms were negative.

“Nobody would have known that otherwise, but with his early detection, we jumped on it right away, tested those youngsters and got them the appropriate isolation where they needed to be,” said Dr. Richard Carmona, UA’s reentry task-force leader. “Think about if we had missed it, if we waited till they became symptomatic, and they stayed in that dorm for days or a week, or the whole incubation period, how many other people would have been infected?”

There’s possibility this wastewater research could be used to diagnose cases in off-campus high rises before an outbreak can occur, Robbins said. For now, the administration is in communication with the managers of the off-campus housing, which the UA has no authority over, to get them to relay messages of adhering to best health practices.

“We think this is going to be a very valuable tool to help us get out in front,” Robbins said about the wastewater research. “What we really need to find out is who are the people who are asymptomatic that are positive.”

The wastewater testing is being used along with the UA’s other mitigation strategies such as the free exposure notification phone app called COVID Watch. It anonymously shares information through Bluetooth to identify other nearby devices, then allows an infected person to send an anonymous alert to other app users whom they may have exposed to the virus.

Robbins said 11,000 people have downloaded the phone app.

There are also around 5,200 people filling out the Wildcat WellCheck, a text-based screening tool for employees and students before they are on campus or in class to help reduce potential coronavirus exposure.

So far, the UA’s testing initiatives have identified 46 positive cases from 10,126 tests completed as of Wednesday evening. Five students were in one of the UA’s 600 isolation spaces staying connected to their classes remotely.

“We’re going to have cases; I’m actually not surprised that we’ve had cases. We’re going to have many more. The numbers are going to get higher,” Robbins said. “The issue is going to be can we handle the steady flow of cases? Or do we get a big spike in cases that overwhelms our ability to isolate and continue to test.”

A contributing factor to more possible cases, Robbins said, is the observations of people around campus not following the rules of wearing masks and social distancing. He said there were large gatherings of people in sand volleyball courts near a campus dorm.

The administration responded by putting fencing around the area, taking down the nets and advising people not to gather there.

“There are consequences, and there will be warnings,” Robbins said about noncompliance to health measures. “They will be referred, if they’re students, through the dean of students in the Student Code of Conduct, and there could be individuals who are suspended or even expelled from the university if they continue to not follow the rules.”

In an attempt to better handle off-campus behavior, the university has also initiated an “off-campus strike force” through the UA’s Government and Community Relations office.

The group gave out 3,000 door hangers informing neighboring residents they can alert the UA of concerns about off-campus behavior, according to Holly Jensen, the UA’s vice president of communications. The group has also partnered with the Tucson and UA police departments.


Contact Star reporter Shaq Davis at 573-4218 or sdavis@tucson.com. On Twitter: @ShaqDavis1

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