UArizona to Ramp Up COVID-19 Testing

Friday, September 11, 2020

University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins, MD, said today that the university is increasing the number of COVID-19 tests conducted on campus to 5,000 per week as part of continued efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

In his second public briefing this week, Dr. Robbins again urged the campus community to remain diligent in following COVID-19 health and safety guidelines as Labor Day weekends approaches.

“The vast majority of our students are complying. I see them, I talk to them, they’re trying to do the right thing,” Dr. Robbins said. “But a small number who do not follow the guidelines and adhere to directives can spoil this for everyone.”

Dr. Robbins acknowledged that the number of positive test results on campus has risen as the amount of overall testing on campus has increased in recent days, and there has also been an uptick in symptomatic cases seen at Campus Health.

Students take a self-administered COVID-19 nasal-swab antigen test at McKale Memorial Center. All students living on campus were required to first test negative before moving into their dorms. Students who live off campus were also offered free tests. (Photo: Chris Richards/University Communications)

Yesterday’s daily case report showed 126 of 1,520 tests came back positive, for a positivity rate of 8.3 percent, Dr. Robbins said. That’s compared to a 2.6 percent positivity rate on the total number of tests done prior to yesterday.

Part of the spike might be explained by increased targeted testing done in response to wastewater analysis at campus dorms, said 17th U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, MD, MPH, director of the university’s Campus Reentry Task force and a distinguished professor of Health Promotion Sciences and Community, Environment and Policy in the university’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

Wastewater-based epidemiology can be used to determine if the virus is present in a community, even if individuals are asymptomatic. UArizona researchers have been testing dorms’ wastewater, and when there is a positive result, the university can then test all of a dorm’s residents to pinpoint cases. The wastewater epidemiology effort is led by Ian Pepper, PhD, director of the UArizona Water and Energy Sustainable Technology Center, professor of Environmental Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Community, Environment and Policy in the Zuckerman College of Public Health, and a BIO5 Institute and Environment, Exposure Science and Risk Assessment Center member.

The university is offering three types of testing as part of its Test, Trace, Treat strategy: nasal-swab antigen tests and nasal-swab polymerase chain reaction tests to diagnose active infections and blood-draw antibody tests that can indicate whether a person has had an immune response to the virus due to a previous infection.

Since July 31, the university has conducted 15,310 antigen and PCR tests with 397 positive results. Testing numbers are updated regularly on the university’s COVID-19 website.

All students who live on campus were required to test negative for COVID-19 prior to moving into their dorms. Students living off campus and university employees are encouraged to sign up for free testing as well, and students, faculty and staff can be tested as often as they would like.

Contact tracers with the university’s SAFER team are working with those who test positive to help identify others who may have been exposed.

In addition to diagnostic testing, antibody testing to indicate whether a person has previously been infected with COVID-19, using a test developed by UArizona researchers, also is available at no cost to faculty, staff and students and any Arizona resident over 18.

Most Courses to Remain Online Next Week

The university will continue to offer most of its courses in an online format next week, with in-person instruction for essential courses only, Dr. Robbins said. Public health data will dictate when additional in-person instruction can resume on campus.

Meanwhile, the university is ramping up efforts with community partners to help slow the spread of COVID-19 both on and off campus, including working with the Tucson Police Department, neighborhood associations and other groups to respond to large gatherings.

On Tuesday, Dr. Robbins announced that the university is hiring private security to help encourage compliance with health and safety directives, especially mandated face coverings and physical distancing. He clarified today that those security members are professionals with a record of working on campus, many at UArizona football games. They are not part of law enforcement, they are not armed, and they are only authorized to remind community members of the guidelines, Dr. Robbins said. They will report noncompliance to the Dean of Students Office, and that office will handle any necessary intervention.

Critical Research Continues Amid Pandemic

UArizona Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation Elizabeth “Betsy” Cantwell, PhD, joined Dr. Robbins and Dr. Carmona at today’s briefing to discuss the university’s research perseverance in the wake of COVID-19.

“Research at the University of Arizona is highly functioning during this period, which is testament to a remarkable cadre of researchers and faculty at the University of Arizona,” she said.  

In addition to the wastewater epidemiology work being conducted on campus, Dr. Cantwell mentioned the university’s continued leadership of the NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, which will grab a sample from asteroid Bennu in October, and the recent $26 million National Science Foundation grant to establish the university’s Center for Quantum Networks.

She also noted the university’s launch of the Arizona Institutes for Resilience, which brings together a number of university units and programs focused on better understanding environmental challenges and developing solutions.

“The bottom line is that we are doing an enormous amount of research regardless of the pandemic but in adapting to the pandemic we are bringing our capacities for resilience to the fore and making sure that we deliver to our community those capacities and enable increased resilience as we move forward,” Dr. Cantwell said.

Click here to view video from the Sept. 3, 2020, Campus Reentry Briefing on YouTube.

The UArizona Health Sciences COVID-19 Research webpage can be found here.

For the latest on the University of Arizona response to the novel coronavirus, visit the university’s COVID-19 webpage.

For UANews coverage of COVID-19, visit https://news.arizona.edu/news/covid19.

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A version of this article appeared originally on the UANews website.

NOTE: Images available upon request.

About the University of Arizona Health Sciences
The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. UArizona Health Sciences includes the Colleges of Medicine (Tucson and Phoenix), Nursing, Pharmacy, and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona, the greater Southwest and around the world to provide next-generation education, research and outreach. A major economic engine, Health Sciences employs nearly 5,000 people, has approximately 4,000 students and 900 faculty members, and garners $200 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: uahs.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn | Instagram).

About the University of Arizona
The University of Arizona, a land-grant university with two independently accredited medical schools, is one of the nation's top public universities, according to U.S. News & World Report. Established in 1885, the university is widely recognized as a student-centric university and has been designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education. The university ranked in the top 20 in 2018 in research expenditures among all public universities, according to the National Science Foundation, and is a leading Research 1 institution with $687 million in annual research expenditures. The university advances the frontiers of interdisciplinary scholarship and entrepreneurial partnerships as a member of the Association of American Universities, the 65 leading public and private research universities in the U.S. It benefits the state with an estimated economic impact of $4.1 billion annually. For more information: arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn | Instagram).