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7 things you need to know about Utah’s plan to test college students for COVID-19

(Photo courtesy of Weber State University) Jacqueline Perez, left, self-administers a COVID-19 test in front of Avery Lytle during the first day of the free asymptomatic COVID-19 testing for students and employees at the Shepherd Union building, in Ogden on Tuesday, November 10, 2020.

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When Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced his plans this week to curb the staggering spread of COVID-19 in the state, colleges were a key component of the emergency orders.

College-age adults, he said, are contracting and transmitting the virus at the highest rates. But many are asymptomatic and don’t know it.

To combat that, Herbert mandated that by the start of the new year, all universities in the state will begin testing their students once a week. Some are already starting. And some say they will discipline those students who don’t comply.

Here are seven things to know about the plan as it begins to roll out:

It doesn’t apply to every student.

While state officials ultimately want to test all 230,000 students at Utah’s universities and technical colleges, not everyone is actually required to participate in the weekly mandate.

Herbert’s order currently only applies to those who live on campus or who are taking at least one in-person class. All other students have the choice to get tested or not.

Most of the schools along the Wasatch Front have dramatically increased their online options for classes in response to the pandemic, but those in central and southern Utah have not. That means schools like Snow College, which is still operating 100% face-to-face, and Dixie State, with 85% of its classes in person, will end up having to test the majority of their students.

The University of Utah, by comparison, has just 21% of its courses in person.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

Meanwhile, some schools — like Utah Valley University and Salt Lake Community College — don’t have on-campus dorms. So there will be fewer required tests there, as well. Of the nearly 42,000 students at UVU, for instance, only 12,000 are taking at least one face-to-face class.

And any student-athletes who are already getting tested as part of their sport programs will not need to get an additional weekly test.

Students will get results within hours.

The tests that will be given to college students are known as “rapid antigen” tests. And they produce results within 24 hours.

Weber State University in Ogden ran a “test run of our testing” on Tuesday to show how it worked. A student walked up to a table and was asked by the medical assistant there for his student ID and phone number. Then he was given a short cotton swab.

The test is self-administered and far less invasive than the COVID-19 swabs used at the start of the pandemic. The student swirled the cotton swab at the bottom of his nose for a few seconds (rather than pushing it to the top of his nasal cavity). He was then instructed to set it on a monitor strip. And that was it.

The student was told he would get a notification within an hour if he was positive and contact tracing would begin. And he’d get an email by the end of the day if he was negative.

“It is a really quick response,” said Weber State President Brad Mortensen.

Weber State plans to administer 500 tests a day on its campus. Previously, it was conducting about 20 for those individuals who showed symptoms. Having a cough or fever is no longer required.

The tests are free.

The testing materials are being provided by the federal government to the state, which will then pass them on to universities. The initial delivery to Utah will be 1 million tests with more to follow when those run out.

Importantly, students will not have to pay to get their weekly test. And there will be several locations on their campus for them to get a swab. The idea is that a student would stop in before or after they have an in-person class to get tested.

Most universities, too, are using volunteers to conduct them. Weber State, for instance, has had 300 individuals offer to perform the tests. The supplies are easy to use and don’t have to be sent to a lab to get results.

At most, Mortensen said, a college will be expected to cover the personal protective equipment needed for medical staff.

When testing starts will depend on the school.

The governor has required that all universities in the state implement weekly virus testing for students no later than Jan. 1. But some will start sooner.

The U., for instance, hopes to test all 32,000 students there at least once before Thanksgiving. In a letter to students, President Ruth Watkins wrote: “We are concerned about the possibility that students may be asymptomatic and unintentionally expose their families to coronavirus as they return home.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A limited student population begins classes at the University of Utah due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, as students are encouraged to social distance, leaving campus empty of its usual traffic on Thursday, August 27, 2020.

After Thanksgiving, all classes there will move online anyway to stem spreading the virus during the worst of the flu season. So starting Wednesday, students at the U. will get a text message to sign up for a test date.

At Weber State, the rollout will begin this week with full implementation planned for Nov. 16. Mortensen said the university, too, would like to conduct 7,000 tests of those on campus by Thanksgiving.

Utah State in Logan began testing Monday and hopes to expand to its smaller campuses in Price and Blanding in the coming weeks. At Utah Valley University, the largest campus in the state, 300 people have signed up, so far. The tests there start Wednesday.

Each school has posted on its website the locations and times for testing.

Both public and private universities are included.

The governor’s order applies to all colleges in the state — regardless of whether they are public or private or one of eight technical schools here.

That means it will cover Brigham Young University in Provo, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The private religious school has seen by far the most spread of any college in Utah. It has had 2,502 cumulative cases among students and staff on the campus of 43,000 since August. Much of that transmission has been blamed on young adults throwing parties in the area.

By comparison, the University of Utah has followed with 1,366 on the campus of 62,000. Utah State University has had 1,185 cases among 31,000. And Utah Valley University has had 670 among more than 50,000.

Carri Jenkins, the spokesperson for BYU, said in an email Tuesday that the school “plans to comply with the executive order.”

She added: “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.”

Already, it has required those who are symptomatic to get tested, as well as conducted randomized testing on campus.

Colleges are planning discipline for those who don’t comply.

There’s already been some animosity toward public safety requirements across the state, such as wearing masks — and that’s found its way onto campuses.

At BYU, for example, at least two students withdrew over the rules being enforced. And others started a petition against the randomized testing being done there.

There doesn’t appear to be any statewide mechanism to ensure that college students follow the mandate to get tested weekly. But there aren’t any written exceptions by the governor. So individual universities are planning discipline for those who don’t comply.

At the U., any consequences would begin next semester, said spokesperson Chris Nelson. The process would most likely involve a student being sent to the Office of the Dean of Students first. Nelson said the school wants to talk to a student who is reluctant to get tested and find out why.

“We’d obviously want to start with understanding a student’s concerns,” he added.

If the student continues to refuse without reason, Nelson said, sanctions could include registration holds and not being allowed to attend class in person. Anyone who doesn’t want to get tested obviously has the option to take all of their courses online for spring semester.

At Utah State, administrators are looking at an incentive program to encourage students to get tested and “protect their friends, family, staff and themselves,” said spokeswoman Emilie Wheeler. There would be rewards for those who comply and possibly prohibitions, such as not being allowed inside campus recreation facilities, for those who don’t.

“We are communicating to students that we are facing a really serious situation in Utah right now,” Wheeler said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bag lunches are delivered to four Utah State University dormitories on Monday, August 0831, 2020, where 287 residents were asked to quarantine after elevated levels of COVID-19 were found in wastewater samples.

The school already had a major quarantine at its dorms as the semester started, locking down nearly 300 students. They all complied.

Some schools are operating solely with the expectation that students will do the right thing. At Utah Valley, spokesperson Scott Trotter said: “Legally, there’s nothing we can do except strongly encourage people.”

Most students have already followed the mask mandate and social distancing, and Trotter hopes they will get tested if they want campus to remain open. Additionally, all those enrolled in a public university have to turn in proof that they’ve received certain vaccinations before they can attend classes. It’s similar to that — though on an admittedly larger scale.

Cases are the highest in the state for college-age individuals.

The state is requiring weekly tests for college students because young people have accounted for most of the cases in Utah.

The age group of 15 to 24 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, according to state data.

The young adult category also makes up 36% of all cases in Utah but only about 10% of the population.

The idea for testing, said state Senate President Stuart Adams, 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 are more likely to be asymptomatic — and isolate them before the virus spreads.

“They just don’t seem to know they have the virus,” Adams said Tuesday.

The concern is that young people get COVID-19 and then take it home to older parents or grandparents, who are more likely to suffer serious complications and die from COVD-19.

Following college testing, the state plans to start an accelerated program that eventually will seek to test people 35 and younger in the workplace, too. And they want to expand it to K-12 teachers and college staff, as well.

The hope is that the targeted, asymptomatic testing will help slow the surge.

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