Virus positivity rate falls below 1% among students at UCSD

Coronavirus

A sign at UC San Diego reminds students and staff to wear masks in December, 2020.

SAN DIEGO (CNS) – With the third week of winter quarter drawing to a close at UC San Diego, the university reported Friday that COVID-19 positive test rates among its students have fallen to less than 1% since classes resumed on Jan. 4, far below the San Diego County average of 12%.

University leaders cite the implementation of the Return to Learn program — under which the campus made pre-emptive adjustments in its protocols to detect and mitigate potential surges as early as possible — as a major factor in the reduction of cases.

The number of students living on campus testing positive has dropped precipitously since the start of the quarter, with 94 students testing positive the week of Jan. 4, 27 on the week of Jan. 11 and five during the first half of the week of Jan. 18. Case levels are now close to those seen during the fall term, at about two to five cases per day, UCSD officials said.

As part of its “Return to Learn” program, students and employees at UCSD may now conduct self-administered COVID-19 tests with kits available in vending machines across campus. (Photo: UC San Diego/Facebook)

To combat the anticipated uptick in cases among students returning from holiday travel, the campus increased mandatory testing from biweekly to weekly and increased access to self-administered tests by installing numerous COVID test kit vending machines throughout campus.

The university also streamlined contact tracing efforts to move positive COVID-19 students swiftly into isolation housing and exposed students into quarantine housing. Additionally, the school instituted a wastewater early detection program which will expand from 76 samplers to 200 by the end of the term.

“Adaptability and innovation in our planning set UC San Diego apart from other universities during this latest COVID-19 surge,” Chancellor Pradeep Khosla said. “Testing protocols continue to evolve in response to community conditions, what we learn through practice, and what our predictive models tell us.”

Among the positive cases investigated for on-campus resident students, 83% were infected after going home for the holidays and tested positive upon their return. To address that challenge, students moving onto campus for winter quarter were required to test within 24 hours of their arrival. They were then mandated to test again on day five, and again on day 10.

“We continue to pay close attention to the surge in Southern California that has been underway since November and are sensitive to rising levels of the virus in communities nationwide,” said Dr. Robert Schooley, a professor at the UCSD School of Medicine and co-lead of the Return to Learn program. “We anticipated that when people went home for winter break, they would be exposed to high levels of infection in their home communities, similar to what we saw after the Thanksgiving holiday.”

COVID-19 test kit vending machines are now the primary source of testing for students. The machines distribute up to 2,000 test kits a day and are in high demand from students, faculty and staff.

Last quarter, the campus processed an average of 1,000 tests a day and the number has significantly increased this quarter. Since Jan. 1, more than 30,000 student tests have been processed.

Results are often available the next day and sometimes even the same day, allowing positive students to rapidly be moved into isolation housing, university officials said.

UCSD has 8,721 undergraduate and graduate students living on campus. The university has dedicated more than 600 beds for isolation and quarantine housing, maintaining more than 80% availability. Students in the units have access to food delivery as well as other support services. Quarantine and isolation beds are also available to off-campus resident students who test positive.

In anticipation of the post-winter break surge, Cheryl Anderson, founding dean of The Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science at UCSD, streamlined contact tracing efforts.

“The goal of contact tracing is to interrupt transmission of the disease, and timeliness is critical,” she said. “Rather than adding more staff, we focused on the data that is crucial to the mission of our contact tracing efforts — which is to find out who was exposed and infected so we could move them into isolation housing as soon as possible.”

Campus contact tracing efforts are augmented by CA Notify, a Bluetooth COVID-19 exposure notification system piloted by several University of California campuses.

The university is currently evaluating travel guidelines for spring break, in late March.

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