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How the University of Arizona stopped a COVID-19 outbreak before it even started

Published Aug 27th, 2020 6:34PM EDT

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  • School reopenings during the coronavirus pandemic have generally been disastrous, but the University of Arizona is an example of how it can be done somewhat safely.
  • The University of Arizona is testing the wastewater from every dorm, and when signs of the virus were discovered, every student in that dorm was tested.
  • Two asymptomatic students tested positive and were isolated before they could spread the virus.

Reopening schools in the US as tens of thousands of Americans are infected with the novel coronavirus on a daily basis has been about as disastrous as we expected. A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association reveals 74,160 children tested positive for COVID-19 from August 6th to August 20th. Meanwhile, universities around the country are being forced to shut down or rethink their plans as students return to campus, gather in dorms, classrooms, restaurants, and bars, and infection rates spikes.

Amidst all of the chaos, one college might be able to serve as an example to all the rest with a system that can detect outbreaks before they happen. Arizona Public Media reports that the school’s wastewater testing system at Likins Hall alerted the school that someone in the dorm might be infected.

University president Robert Robbins said during a weekly briefing: “We did test — I think there are 311 individuals in that dorm — and we did the antigen test, we did them all [Wednesday] and found two positive cases.” The two cases were asymptomatic and both were sent to the quarantine dorm to recover. “We in fact found cases that no one would have known about and now we’re contact tracing all of their contacts to find out how many other students may be positive and asymptomatic,” added Robbins.

As author Charles Fishman explains in a Twitter thread, this episode at the University of Arizona is a microcosm of how the US could tackle the coronavirus pandemic effectively and intelligently. Without wastewater testing, the virus might have spread. Without tests for every single student in that dorm, these two asymptomatic carriers might never have been found. By simply putting in the work, Arizona might have stopped an outbreak.

UA resumed classes on Monday, some online and some in-person. Students had to test negative in order to move back into dorms on campus, but as of Thursday morning, 47 positive cases had been detected. There is no foolproof way to stop the spread of COVID-19, but if you’re going to have hundreds or thousands of people gathering together, you need to have to capacity to find and isolate positive cases as quickly as possible.

“What we really need to find out is who are the people who are asymptomatic that are positive,” said Robbins. “So, this random testing, this use of wastewater-based epidemiology is going to be really important, as well as watching the compliance metrics of how many people are covering their faces, how many people are downloading the app for contact tracing, how many people are completing their daily Wildcat Wellness Check.”

Jacob Siegal
Jacob Siegal Associate Editor

Jacob Siegal is Associate Editor at BGR, having joined the news team in 2013. He has over a decade of professional writing and editing experience, and helps to lead our technology and entertainment product launch and movie release coverage.