Local universities reevaluate on-campus COVID-19 testing methods for spring semester

Stock image | Photo by Serhii Sobolevskyi/ iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — At the start of the Spring 2021 semester, Utah universities, including Dixie State University and Southern Utah University, revisited the way they test students, staff and faculty for COVID-19. 

The largest sign identifying Dixie State University stands at the southeast corner of of 700 East and 100 South, St. George, Utah, Nov. 21, 2019 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Colleges and universities must test all students over the age of 18 who live on campus or attend at least one in-person class, according to an executive order from the Utah Department of Health, but it is up to the institutions to decide the best way to do that.

Last semester, Dixie State University began testing students each week and then every two weeks in light of former Gov. Gary Herbert’s Nov. 8 order. This semester, the university is allowing students to be tested during four screening periods throughout the semester, particularly after breaks and long weekends. The rapid noninvasive test is a screening test that provides students with results within 24 hours, according to the institution’s coronavirus information webpage. With this test, the university is able to test about 85 students per hour, Jyl Hall, university director of public relations, told St. George News. 

By participating in these screenings, students can help mitigate the spread of COVID throughout the community while protecting themselves, their families and their friends,” Hall said. 

The screening test is designed to detect the virus in asymptomatic individuals. The university encourages students who have COVID-19 symptoms to call the Booth Wellness Center and get a doctor’s note for a PCR test. 

According to the university’s coronavirus information webpage, there are 16 active cases between students, staff and faculty on campus; since March 2020, there have been 773 positive cases at Dixie State. 

Southern Utah University is also following the state’s health guidelines. During the first week of school, the university tested everyone on campus and then moved to randomized testing, Mindy Benson, vice president of alumni and COVID testing task force director, told St. George News. 

Southern Utah University campus in Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University, St. George News

“The state has given us a number that they want us to hit of students tested every week,” Benson said. “So we’re pulling a list of about 700 that we think will get us to the number that the governor actually wants tested, and those are just random sampling and then whoever’s on that list will be asked to come in and test and if they don’t test, then they’ll go back into the pool for the next week.”

The randomized system leaves the possibility that some students will never be chosen to get tested, Benson said, but the university is carefully tracking who has been drawn and who hasn’t, so they can get diverse results. However any student with or without symptoms is still welcome to get tested on campus with an appointment, Benson said. There are separate testing sites on campus for symptomatic and asymptomatic students. 

The tests take 15 minutes and anyone who tests positive will immediately receive a notification, so the person who tested positive knows to leave class and go home before contacting more people, Benson said. Negative test results are sent out at the end of the day. Once the university moved to the randomized system, numbers dropped from testing 1,200 people a day to about 200 a day. 

SUU’s nursing students are working on site to administer the tests in place of an internship so they can get their clinical hours. The students were the first to volunteer to administer the tests, Benson said. There are also campus volunteers at the testing sites to help the students. 

The university has only been testing students since Thanksgiving, but Benson said they have learned a few things about the best ways to test students and staff. 

“We’re learning and changing everything as we learn and grow from it,” Benson said. “One thing that we learned is the tests, it’s much quicker to administer them. We thought it would take 15 minutes each student and it’s about three minutes each student, so we’re able to get a lot more students in per hour than we originally thought.”

Last week, there were 39 positive cases at SUU including on and off-campus students, faculty and staff. For more information about COVID-19 at SUU, visit their coronavirus information webpage.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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