Why COVID testing still matters at the University of Utah
With COVID limiting opportunities to get involved on campus this past year, University of Utah student Aubrey Miller decided to join the battle against the virus.
She first volunteered to help run the campus COVID testing program when the university hosted the vice presidential debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence in October.
She then became a testing site supervisor when the testing program, which is now largely student run, ramped up further in the spring.
“In my opinion, it’s not a political thing, it’s a science thing,” said Miller, an aspiring physician’s assistant who is studying international relations with an emphasis on global health. “No matter which way you lean or who you voted for or what you believe, it’s science and we need testing and vaccinations to keep everybody safe.”
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Administrators intend to continue a rigorous testing campaign this fall, anticipating that not every member of the campus community will be vaccinated and the slight chance that a vaccinated person becomes infected.
While the campus officials likely won’t test everyone twice a week, as they did last spring, the goal is still to identify new infections quickly to stymie outbreaks, says John D. Phillips, a research professor in the Division of Hematology and Hematologic Malignancies in the university’s Department of Internal Medicine.
“It’s very important to understand how the virus is moving through a population—you can’t get a handle on it until you know who has it,” Phillips says. “When people who are vaccinated get the virus, they have a much less severe case. They have a sore throat and the sniffles and may not be super careful about where they go and who they interact with.”
As important as the testing itself is providing rapid results. the university is using Thermo Fisher’s TaqCheck SARS-CoV-2 Fast PCR Assay saliva test and its own lab facilities and IT resources to provide results in 12 hours. The initiative required close collaboration by a number of campus departments, Phillips says.
Readjusting campus priorities
Since October 2020, the university’s positivity rate has plummeted from about 2 out of 100 students testing positive to 2 in 1,000. As a result, the university’s dance and theater departments to resume in-person activities and performances while the campus is also reopening its summer camps.
“It gave the university the ability to manage positive individuals,” Phillips says. “It allowed the university to readjust people’s priorities. It was as usual as much as it could be business as usual.”
Miller said she felt pretty safe while volunteering at the testing sites. She had sufficient PPE and, as a young, healthy college student, was less concerned about infection.
She now recognizes that widely available, rapid testing that identifies asymptomatic cases early gave everyuone on campus a greater level of comfort this spring, she says.
“A lot less of my friends were quarantined, and I don’t know anybody who got sick second semester,” Miller says. “This is a testing program that can translate everywhere.”