Utah officials plan to require college students get tested for COVID-19 weekly

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students walk on campus at the University of Utah on Thursday, August 27, 2020. The state may start requiring students at public colleges to get tested weekly for COVID-19.

Utah leaders want to require that all college students in the state get tested for COVID-19 once a week.

A mandate that would enforce that is expected to be announced early next week as part of Gov. Gary Herbert’s plans to address the record-setting spread of the virus — which has spiked with schools reopening this fall. The measure would apply to more than 230,000 students across the state.

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, who has worked with Herbert to draft the requirement, confirmed to The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday that it is in the works.

“It’s not a rumor,” he said. “The virus is spiking all over the country. And there are multiple reasons why. One is that colleges and universities have gone back.”

Adams said the rollout is expected to start Monday, but he cautioned it will be gradual. “This will be a mammoth undertaking,” he added.

The primary focus will be those who are attending in-person classes. But under the plan, students at the state’s eight public universities, as well as the eight technical colleges, will be required to get a coronavirus test weekly.

The offer has also been extended, Adams said, to include Brigham Young University, which is private.

The idea, Adams said, came when Utah officials met last weekend with Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The two medical experts recommended testing college students as a way to find cases of COVID-19 — especially young patients who might be asymptomatic — and isolate them before the virus spreads.

“These young people can spread it very, very prolifically and rapidly,” Adams said.

The state has struggled with transmission on colleges campuses since Herbert encouraged them to reopen with at least some in-person options this fall. BYU in Provo has seen by far the most spread. It has had 2,350 cumulative cases among students and staff on the campus of 43,000 after the semester started in August.

The University of Utah has followed with 1,270 on the campus of 62,000. Utah State in Logan has had 1,042 cases. And Utah Valley University in Orem, which has the biggest student population in the state, has had 595.

Much of the transmission has been blamed on young adults throwing parties, particularly in Utah County. But there has also been spread in the dorms. Utah State initially quarantined nearly 300 students in August around move-in when high traces of the virus were detected in the wastewater.

Counts for the state show the highest rates of infection in people ages 15 to 24. That group is at 6,461.8 cases per 100,000. By comparison, the next highest is 25 to 44 at 5,039.8 per 100,000.

The 15-24 category also accounts for 36% of all cases in Utah, but they are only about 10% of the population.

Adams said that’s why the state is targeting college students for testing. The concern is that young people get the virus and then take it home to older parents or grandparents, who are more likely to suffer serious complications and die from COVD-19.

It’s not clear, though, how Utah leaders or college administrators will be able to enforce the required testing.

There’s already been some animosity toward public safety requirements at BYU. At least two students withdrew over the rules being enforced. And others started a petition against the randomized testing being done there.

Questions remain, too, on where students would need to go to get a test. Would they have to go to campus? And would that bring more individuals to the university who otherwise would only be doing their coursework online? The U., for instance, is only holding 21% of its classes in person, with the rest either hybrid or fully virtual.

And who will process all of the tests? The U. has an on-campus lab. But Utah Valley University does not.

Adams said exactly how the mandate will work is still being considered. But currently, for instance, students do have to turn in proof that they’ve received certain vaccinations before they can attend classes on public campuses in the state.

A spokesperson for the governor’s office also said Friday that the plan is “in discussions and we’re looking at the details.” A representative for the Utah System of Higher Education, which oversees the public universities and technical colleges, noted that officials were “working on logistics.”

Adams assured, though, the state will have enough testing supplies. The federal government, he said, has promised to provide one million rapid tests upfront and replenish them when they run out (which would be in about three weeks if all college students were tested every seven days). The results from those should be available for students roughly 10 to 15 minutes after taking it.

The Senate president believes the University of Utah and Weber State University will be ready to start first.

Chris Nelson, the spokesman for the U., said Friday that he wasn’t aware of a state mandate. But he did confirm that the university is “looking at how we’d implement it.”

Additionally, Michael Good, the CEO of University of Utah Health Care and the dean of the School of Medicine, wrote in a blog post Tuesday that the hope is to test all students at the U. at least once before they leave campus for Thanksgiving. Once the process gets rolling, the university would like to add staff and faculty, too.

“We think it’s important that people know before they return to their homes," Good said, “whether they may be one of these asymptomatic individuals who has a coronavirus infection.”