How UC San Diego is keeping a lid on COVID

UC San Diego will use vending machines to provide students with tests they can self-administer
By: | December 7, 2020
Under the UC San Diego COVID-prevention program, the campus' wastewater early detection system grew from 6 to 52 testing personnel who cover more than 100 residential buildings.Under the UC San Diego COVID-prevention program, the campus' wastewater early detection system grew from 6 to 52 testing personnel who cover more than 100 residential buildings.

With 25,000 faculty, researchers, staff and students on campus on any given day this fall, UC San Diego’s multi-pronged approach prevented a major COVID outbreak.

The 10,000 students living on the University of California San Diego campus were the most of any school in the state. But the campus COVID positivity hovered between 0.17% and 0.43% among on- and off-campus students throughout the fall quarter, ran from Oct. 1 to Nov. 29.

San Diego County’s average positivity rate was between 2.7 and 6.1% during that same time frame.

Under the university’s Return to Learn Program, the campus’ wastewater early detection system grew from 6 to 52 testing personnel who cover more than 100 residential buildings.


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The university plans to double the amount of sampling over the next few months to cover the entire campus. This would equate to testing every student, every day, campus, said Return to Learn project co-lead Natasha Martin, an associate professor of medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

“The critical part of the program is that when we get a positive wastewater signal, we notify those in the buildings draining wastewater into the manhole where we detected the positive signal, and we encourage them to come in and get tested,”  Martin said. “Those who are positive can move into isolation housing.”

The expanded sampling force detected traces of coronavirus coming from nine different areas on campus on Nov. 23 and Nov. 28. More than 700 students were notified and tested.

In September, the campus detected the virus at Revelle College and tracked it back to two asymptomatic people.

“The wastewater sampling is highly sensitive, and even one infected resident can generate a positive signal in the wastewater, which subsequently turns negative after the resident is moved to isolation housing,” Martin said. “By combining wastewater monitoring with weekly asymptomatic testing, we are seeking to identify and isolate cases before they become outbreaks.”

The university is now using vending machines to provide students with tests they can self-administer and has built outdoor classrooms for winter-quarter classes.

UC San Diego also piloted the cellphone-based CA COVID Notify system and has partnered with the California Department of Public Health on a potential statewide deployment of the app.

The app sends alerts to users cell phones to notify them if they have been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. The app does not track users’ identities or locations.

Over 18,000 UC San Diego staff and students—more than 50% of the on-campus population—uses the app.  More than 20 alerts were issued during the pilot, notifying campus residents and visitors they might have been exposed.

“While UC San Diego is one of the few colleges in the nation with low rates of infection and a large student body on campus, the university remains vigilant to reduce transmission of virus in our community to the greatest extent possible,” UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla said.


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The app sends alerts to users cell phones to notify them if they have been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. The app does not track users’ identities or locations.

Over 18,000 UC San Diego staff and students—more than 50% of the on-campus population—uses the app.  More than 20 alerts were issued during the pilot, notifying campus residents and visitors they might have been exposed.

“While UC San Diego is one of the few colleges in the nation with low rates of infection and a large student body on campus, the university remains vigilant to reduce transmission of virus in our community to the greatest extent possible,” UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla said.