University of Arizona Using Sewage Tests to Detect Covid

TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) — Although Arizona’s major universities are all taking measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, it’s an uphill battle to contain tens of thousands of young adults who have been cooped up for the past six months.

“You’re taking a bunch of socially-starved 18-year-olds, and you’re putting them in a place where they have freedom for the first time in their lives,” said Arizona State University freshman Luke Hinderaker. “Of course they’re going to go out and have parties.”

ASU, University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University have taken slightly different approaches to the return to campus, although all require masks and social distancing and are offering a mix of live and online classes.

University of Arizona in Tucson hired unarmed security workers to patrol the campus reminding and reporting — but not punishing or citing — students who violate social distance and mask rules. The university separated classes into two categories, one that includes labs, performing arts and other classes that won’t work online, and others that do.

About 5,000 of the school’s 44,000 students are enrolled in live classes, UA President Robert C. Robbins said in a Zoom briefing Thursday.

University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins (Photo courtesy of the University of Arizona)

ASU started the semester offering a choice to students to attend live or online. Dorms there started out allowing visitors from other campus dorms, but on Thursday restricted visitors to only people who live in the same building.

“We’re basically stuck in our rooms,” Hinderaker said.

At NAU, where the Coconino County reports just 31 positive Covid-19 tests, 2,500 of the university’s 29,000 students will be tested weekly on a random basis. The testing is required for students when their names are drawn.

As a potential pledge, Hinderaker has seen some gatherings of 50-75 people at ASU fraternities. He considers the gatherings a necessary evil, because getting a bid from a fraternity without attending is almost impossible.

“I kind of took the mindset that if I get it, I get it, I guess,” he said.

By the start of this week, 775 of ASU’s 74,500 students and 28 faculty and staff had tested positive, the university said in an online update. Among 12,131 students who live on ASU’s three campuses scattered around metropolitan Phoenix, 670 are in isolation after testing positive. The remainder live off campus and have been asked to isolate.

ASU started the semester offering classes in person or online, whichever students preferred, a stance that will continue until further notice at the state’s largest university. If the situation worsens, most classes would be online with live attendance only for classes that require it, such as performance arts or science labs.

The school moved on Thursday to stepped-up monitoring and stiffer compliance measures. Repeat violators of campus health rules will be removed. Guests will be limited to one per room and must live in the same building.

Hinderaker has been tested three times — all negative — since he got there. The Tucson native sees a lot of students ignoring social distancing and mask rules. He wonders if the school made a mistake allowing visitors to intermingle among dorms when the campus opened. 

It might have been better to start with the restrictions imposed this week, then loosen them as needed, he said.

“Pretty much all of my friends have gotten it, my close friends from Tucson,” he said. “I’ve been bringing them food.”

ASU students now face a Sept. 30 deadline after which they can no longer get a refund on room and board fees, should the campus be closed.

All University of Arizona students are tested when they arrive on campus, and antibody testing of sewage recently allowed the university to head off an outbreak, Robbins said.

After sewage from one dorm showed antibodies, the university tested more than 300 students in nine hours. Three students with Covid-19 were identified and isolated, preventing further spread.

The UA president acknowledged that an uptick in cases was expected when students returned.

“But what we don’t want is to have a huge outbreak on campus,” Robbins said.

As of Wednesday, the campus had seen 397 positive Covid-19 tests and 54 students were living in an isolation dorm after testing positive.

Richard Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general who is leading a UA re-entry task force, said numbers at UA are trending downward, including an Rt of 0.85, meaning the disease is contracting, not spreading.

Health ambassadors from the UA public health college are talking to campus groups as influencers, and university officials are meeting with business managers near campus — bars, restaurants, apartments, etc. — to coordinate efforts where possible.

“Every touch point we have available, we have touched,” he said.

Robbins said the college is aware of some planned parties for Labor Day weekend. The school knows where they are planned and will head them off. Ultimately, it’s up to individuals to follow the rules.

“This really isn’t all that difficult,” he said. “Wash your hands, wear a mask, and keep your distance from other people.”

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