ST. GEORGE, Utah (ABC4 News) — Two universities in southern Utah are gearing up to administer free, non-invasive COVID-19 testing for students on campus, according to Gov. Gary Herbert’s executive order. Starting in January, all Utah college students who live on campus or take at least one class on campus will undergo weekly testing.
Weekly testing for COVID-19 at Southern Utah University began Thursday morning, according to SUU Provost Dr. Jon Anderson, following a soft launch earlier this week. The university has received approximately 2,500 tests and anticipates administering about 1,250 of them by the end of the day Friday on a first-come, first-served basis. As the governor’s mandate states that every student taking at least one in-person class should be tested weekly, SUU will need to administer tests to between 6,500 and 7,000 students each week.
“We didn’t know how well our students would respond to the governor’s mandate, but we were very hopeful about it,” Anderson said. “Every appointment for testing today that we offered was filled. Our students have done everything they’ve needed to do to stay safe and stay open.”
“Testing for students with no COVID-19 symptoms will be available in the Student Center Ballroom by appointment, please book your appointment for a rapid COVID test from this website. Make sure you bring your Student ID and T-Number. Results will be emailed to you after 5 p.m. on the day of your test. If you are experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms, DO NOT come to the Ballroom. Symptomatic testing is available at the Alumni House by appointment,” according to an email sent out to students on Nov. 18.
Anderson tells ABC4 News the university developed a task force that has worked on all issues related to COVID-19, including testing, since the summer. A sub-committee that includes an event coordinator, an athletic testing coordinator, and an individual overseeing the university’s risk management has developed diagrams to ensure students can socially distance and wear masks, establishing a plan within about two to three days of the governor’s mandate, according to university officials. The university’s student association has also completed a “significant public relations campaign” to keep all students up to date on COVID-19 safety precautions.
Until about three weeks ago, the university’s highest COVID-19 case count per week was about 10, according to the administration. As soon as the weather became colder and students spent more time indoors, case counts have increased, with weeks as high as around 50 reported cases. SUU states that almost all of the spread is occurring outside of the classroom and university and within people who live together.
“We are going fully remote as an institution following Thanksgiving break, but we will continue to test all those who live in and around the Cedar City area or who are on campus,” Anderson said. “We’ve really worked to use this as a tool for education to help people understand how and where the virus spreads and teach them precautions they need to take on-campus and at home.”
SUU will return to face-to-face instruction on Jan. 11, with approximately two-thirds of its student population attending classes in-person for the spring semester. The university is hoping that any spread of COVID-19 as a result of family gatherings could be cleared before students come back in the spring, as the break is just short of the typical incubation period.
“It has just been so rewarding to see the human compassion on campus as people have reached out to help in almost any way, from delivering meals to volunteering to help with testing,” Anderson said. “It’s been a real campus effort, and it hasn’t been anywhere as near as bad as we thought it would be.”
Officials at Dixie State University are not far behind from SUU after receiving a couple thousand tests from the state this week, according to Garyn Gulbranson, the current Director of the DSU Booth Wellness Center.
“It’s a good start. We will certainly need more if we’re hoping to keep with the mandate, and we’re waiting on the state and federal government to be able to supply more tests,” Gulbranson tells ABC4 News. “We’re working with the Utah Department of Health closely, hoping to get some of this started before the end of the semester and then really work on refining our process.”
Gulbranson says that DSU officials are holding a training with UDOH officials Thursday afternoon to test a small sample of students and “establish a good system,” but he said the university is “probably a couple weeks away” from being able to roll out approximately 10,000 weekly tests for its on-campus students. On average, the university is seeing about 50 to 60 COVID-19 cases per week for its population of about 12,000 students.
“I’m very, very proud of our students,” Gulbranson said. “We’ve been very pleased with how compliant and proactive they’ve been with mask wearing and social distancing. Because of the mask mandate, we’re really happy to report that we have not had any cases contracted in classroom settings.”
DSU has not had any student-to-student, student-to-teacher, or teacher-to-student COVID-19 transmission and states that cases are primarily being spread off-campus at home or in social settings. In contrast to SUU, the university is planning to return to in-person classes following Thanksgiving break after running the plan by the Southwest Utah Public Health Department and UDOH, according to Gulbranson.
“In many ways, what we’ve received as a response is that campus is one of the safest places for our students to be,” Gulbranson said.