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Some Utah colleges to ramp up COVID-19 testing this week

Gov. Herbert issues order calling for more testing of public school teachers, weekly testing of college students no later than Jan. 1.

Students walk through the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019.
Students walk through the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Federal officials have promised “a large number” of rapid COVID-19 tests to help support a comprehensive effort on college campuses and K-12 schools to help stem the spread of coronavirus, state officials say.

Joe Dougherty, spokesman for the state’s Unified Command for Coronavirus Response, said processes are being put in place while the state awaits delivery of rapid COVID-19 tests from the federal government.

“The federal government has provided us with a large number of testing kits and has promised to send more — everything we need to run this new program,” Dougherty said Monday.

Gov. Gary Herbert’s executive order, issued Sunday night, calls for mandatory weekly testing of college students who are on campus at least once a week to start as soon as possible but no later than Jan. 1.

University of Utah spokesman Christopher Nelson said the U. plans to offer testing starting Wednesday to 32,000 students “whether they attend in-person class or online, whether they live on campus or live off campus, just as part of our commitment and the challenge of recognizing that it’s not just for students’ safety, it’s for the safety of the families and communities that they’re currently living in or at least returning to over Thanksgiving.”

The university expected to receive 30,000 rapid antigen tests by the end of the day Monday, which the university purchased on its own, Nelson said.

The tests, which cost about $5 each, offer results in 15 minutes, he said. It requires a less invasive nasal swab that is applied to a test card roughly the size of a credit card. The test manufacturer also offers an app that uses test-specific QR codes to tie a test to the subject and provides notification of test results. The U. will use the app, Nelson said.

People who test positive will be asked to take a PCR test, which looks for the genetic material of the virus and is considered a highly accurate test.

The testing is part of the university’s larger strategy to reduce spread of COVID-19, which includes the wearing of masks, social distancing and “practicing this idea of creating your social bubble for the winter holidays and limiting your exposure to seven to 10 people,” Nelson said.

Weekly testing of college students will require “significant commitment” from state and federal sources, supposing an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 students will be taking at least one class in person during the term, he said.

Meanwhile, Utah Valley University President Astrid S. Tuminez urged all students to take part in campus COVID-19 testing, which is also available to staff and faculty.

“These tests are free, less invasive than those offered in the past, and provide results within hours. They will provide valuable information and knowledge that could change behavior and potentially save lives,” Tuminez said.

At Utah State University, free weekly testing will begin this week for all students who live on its Logan campus and will start next week among students who live off campus. The university is also working toward providing testing on its Eastern and Blanding campuses in the coming weeks.

“It is essential for us to follow the governor’s order,” said USU President Noelle Cockett.

“We are concerned as we look at students heading home for the Thanksgiving holiday, and these actions are an effort to protect our students themselves, but also their family members and our own Aggie family.”

BYU also plans to comply with the executive order, which includes weekly testing for students who attend at least one in-person class and those who live in on-campus housing, officials said in a statement.

“We believe that testing is an important component to successfully preventing and managing the spread of COVID-19. Since the beginning of fall semester, BYU has implemented a robust plan for testing,” it said.

The university now requires COVID-19 testing of students, faculty and staff within four broad categories: testing of symptomatic individuals; testing of those who have been in direct close contact with a known COVID-19 case; focused, risk-based evaluation and testing: and randomized testing across the BYU campus community.

“We have communicated to our campus community that the testing process at each campus must be in place by Jan. 1, 2021, but may begin sooner if possible,” the statement said.

As for testing K-12 teachers, Dougherty said educators have access to PCR testing through TestUtah. The Utah Department of Health is working to expand rapid asymptomatic testing to high school teachers.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said educators are working with the governor’s office on rapid test logistics.

Dickson said the governor’s office “has added additional resources to make sure that there’s a project focused on K-12 testing, and a project focused on higher education. We’re trying to ramp up the ability for teachers and students to be tested on a weekly basis and that will take some piloting, and hopefully we’ll have logistics in place before students go home for the Thanksgiving holiday.”

The Utah Education Association was critical of Herbert’s order, saying it did not go far enough to protect the health and safety of educators. The order also states that social gatherings should be limited to people who live in the same household.

“There is a distinct contradiction in calling for limits to social gatherings while our public schools continue with class sizes among the largest in the country,” the association’s statement said.

Dickson said, “It’s fair to say it feels counterintuitive, but we still feel that with proper controls in place, for some kids, school’s the safest place to be.”

Rates of COVID-19 infections associated with schools are low, “3% or less, and that’s kind of on the high end. So while it’s on the rise, it’s still low compared to what is happening outside of the school system,” Dickson said.

The order also calls for a temporary halt to high school extracurricular activities, except football championships. College sports will continue to operate under the directives of their respective conferences.

Kimberly Bird, spokeswoman for Alpine School District, said winter sports tryouts for basketball and wrestling were supposed to be conducted on Monday, but that’s on hold, possibly to be rescheduled later this month.

Three Alpine District high schools are playing in the championship playoffs, but those events will operate under testing and crowd size guidelines.

“There’s a lot of changes, but we want to maintain kids in school every day, face to face, so we’re going to join in with the community effort to try to slow the spread,” Bird said.

Bird said 90% of students who attended school in person first term earned passing grades compared to some 60% of those who attended online. The district has now designated Wednesdays as online learning days so teachers can give online learners more individualized attention.

“We are working passionately to try to maintain in-person school, it’s that vital to our students’ success,” Bird said.

UEA also called on local school boards to consider shifting most junior highs and high schools to online learning after the Thanksgiving break until the start of the return to school in January.

Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley said data indicates there are low rates of COVID-19 transmission associated with schools and there is high compliance with mask wearing and other prevention measures at school.

“It does not appear that the board is going to go contrary to what the current guidance is at this point in time, which indicates we can operate safely with some additional restrictions,” Horsley said.

While schools are doing their part to protect communities, there are many factors beyond their control, he said.

“They (students) do a great job on school property, but it just is not happening off the school property, and frankly, some parents have not been very supportive of that,” he said.