UArizona to Ramp Up COVID-19 Testing

students get covid-19 tests at mckale center

Students take a self-administered COVID-19 nasal-swab antigen test at McKale Memorial Center. All students living on campus were required to first test negative. All students living on campus were required to test negative before moving into their dorms. Students who live off campus were also offered free tests.

Chris Richards/University Communications

University of Arizona Robert C. Robbins said today that the university is increasing the number of COVID-19 tests conducted on campus to 5,000 per week as part of continued efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

In his second public briefing this week, Robbins again urged the campus community to remain diligent in following COVID-19 health and safety guidelines as Labor Day weekends approaches.

"The vast majority of our students are complying. I see them, I talk to them, they're trying to do the right thing," Robbins said. "But a small number who do not follow the guidelines and adhere to directives can spoil this for everyone."

Robbins acknowledged that the number of positive test results on campus has risen as the amount of overall testing on campus has increased in recent days, and there has also been an uptick in symptomatic cases seen at Campus Health.

Yesterday's daily case report showed 126 of 1,520 tests came back positive, for a positivity rate of 8.3 percent, Robbins said. That's compared to a 2.6 percent positivity rate on the total number of tests done prior to yesterday.

Part of the spike might be explained by increased targeted testing done in response to wastewater analysis at campus dorms, said 17th U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona, director of the university's Campus Reentry Task force and a distinguished professor in the university's Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

Wastewater-based epidemiology can be used to determine if the virus is present in a community, even if individuals are asymptomatic. UArizona researchers have been testing dorms' wastewater, and when there is a positive result, the university can then test all of a dorm's residents to pinpoint cases. The wastewater epidemiology effort is led by Ian Pepper, director of the UArizona Water and Energy Sustainable Technology Center and a BIO5 Institute member.

The university is offering three types of testing as part of its Test, Trace, Treat strategy: nasal-swab antigen tests and nasal-swab polymerase chain reaction tests to diagnose active infections and blood-draw antibody tests that can indicate whether a person has had an immune response to the virus due to a previous infection.

Since July 31, the university has conducted 15,310 antigen and PCR tests with 397 positive results. Testing numbers are updated regularly on the university's COVID-19 website.

All students who live on campus were required to test negative for COVID-19 prior to moving into their dorms. Students living off campus and university employees are encouraged to sign up for free testing as well, and students, faculty and staff can be tested as often as they'd like.

Contact tracers with the university's SAFER team are working with those who test positive to help identify others who may have been exposed.

In addition to diagnostic testing, antibody testing to indicate whether a person has previously been infected with COVID-19, using a test developed by UArizona researchers, also is available at no cost to faculty, staff and students and any Arizona resident over 18.

Most Courses to Remain Online Next Week

The university will continue to offer most of its courses in an online format next week, with in-person instruction for essential courses only, Robbins said. Public health data will dictate when additional in-person instruction can resume on campus.

Meanwhile, the university is ramping up efforts with community partners to help slow the spread of COVID-19 both on and off campus, including working with the Tucson Police Department, neighborhood associations and other groups to respond to large gatherings.

On Tuesday, Robbins announced that the university is hiring private security to help encourage compliance with health and safety directives, especially mandated face coverings and physical distancing. He clarified today that those security members are professionals with a record of working on campus, many at UArizona football games. They are not part of law enforcement, they are not armed, and they are only authorized to remind community members of the guidelines, Robbins said. They will report noncompliance to the Dean of Students Office, and that office will handle any necessary intervention.

Critical Research Continues Amid Pandemic

UArizona Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation Elizabeth "Betsy" Cantwell joined Robbins and Carmona at today's briefing to discuss the university's research perseverance in the wake of COVID-19.

"Research at the University of Arizona is highly functioning during this period, which is testament to a remarkable cadre of researchers and faculty at the University of Arizona," she said.   

In addition to the wastewater epidemiology work being conducted on campus, Cantwell mentioned the university's continued leadership of the NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission, which will grab a sample from asteroid Bennu in October, and the recent $26 million National Science Foundation grant to establish the university's Center for Quantum Networks.

She also noted the university's launch of the Arizona Institutes for Resilience, which brings together a number of university units and programs focused on better understanding environmental challenges and developing solutions.

"The bottom line is that we are doing an enormous amount of research regardless of the pandemic but in adapting to the pandemic we are bringing our capacities for resilience to the fore and making sure that we deliver to our community those capacities and enable increased resilience as we move forward," Cantwell said.


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