Utah abandons plan to test college students weekly just days before it was supposed to start

Now students will only be required to get tested once at the start of the semester.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Students walk on campus at the University of Utah on Thursday, August 27, 2020. The state had planned to test all college students weekly or biweekly for COVID-19 starting in January 2021, but it no longer will require it.

Utah is dropping its plan to require all college students attending classes in person or living on campus get tested weekly for the coronavirus.

The decision to walk back the measure came Tuesday, shortly before it was supposed to take effect for the coming semester. Dave Woolstenhulme, the commissioner who oversees the state’s public and technical colleges, said they’ll instead be taking “a more refined approach.”

“We are building on what we learned this past fall and are confident these steps will help keep our entire higher education community safe over the coming months,” he added in a news release.

In place of the weekly college testing that was ordered by then-Gov. Gary Herbert in November — and later amended to every other week to save supplies — both public and private institutions will now require that students get tested just once at the beginning of the term. That must happen within 10 days of classes starting, according to the new plan approved by the state health department. Most colleges are set to return later this month.

If students don’t comply, they may be reassigned to entirely online courses.

The mandate still applies to only those taking at least one class with in-person instruction and those living in campus housing. Students who have already elected to complete the semester from home will not be required to get a test.

In addition to the initial testing, colleges also will continue administering nasal swabs for those experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. And contact tracing will be a priority to identify anyone who may have been exposed to the virus on campus.

There will also be random testing of both students and staff to try to find and isolate asymptomatic cases.

“We worked closely with state public health leaders and those at Utah’s colleges and universities to develop a more refined approach to testing that requires fewer tests and greater flexibility for our institutions to focus on areas that will have the greatest impact,” Woolstenhulme said. “It’s important we stay vigilant in our efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19 as we return for a new semester.”

The plan to test students weekly had raised concern about testing supplies. There are about 230,000 individuals attending college or a technical school in the state. And though not all of them are taking classes in person, the plan was set to gobble up a thousands of test kits in a short amount of time.

There were also questions about how the requirement would be enforced — especially, for example, with a vocal group of students at Brigham Young University who have been resisting public health orders.

The new plan doesn’t alleviate all concerns, acknowledged Trisha Dugovic, spokesperson for the Utah System of Higher Education. But the hope is that it helps with some.

“It wasn’t so much that there was a lack of testing supply, but that after a lot of collaboration and discussion, this plan was developed to use the tests on hand in the most effective way (better tracking spread and stopping it),” she said in an email.

And “the institutions anticipate significant cost savings associated with randomized testing and believe there will be improved compliance with a randomized testing protocol,” she said.

The idea is to be more targeted and less wasteful with similar results.

When state leaders first proposed testing college students on a weekly basis, it was intended as an effort to limit spread in the age group that accounts for the most cases and the most spread in Utah — but who often don’t show symptoms.

“These young people can spread it very, very prolifically and rapidly,” said Senate President Stuart Adams, who championed the measure at the time it was announced.

On Wednesday, he maintained that increased testing is vital for stopping transmission. But Adams added that he appreciates universities “stepping up to find sustainable solutions to this ongoing challenge.”

The state has struggled with spread on colleges campuses since they were encouraged to reopen with at least some in-person options this fall. BYU in Provo has seen by far the most spread. It has had 3,821 cumulative cases among students and staff on the campus of 43,000 since the semester started in August.

The University of Utah has followed with 2,480 on the campus of 62,000.

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

And overall counts for the state show the highest rates of infection in people ages 15 to 24. That group is at 13,537.8 cases per 100,000 in the population. The next highest is ages 24 to 44, with 11,450.1 cases.

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.

Each college also will still be able to conduct additional tests if they choose. The University of Utah plans to move forward with testing its students who live in the dorms weekly, said spokesperson Chris Nelson. And the school intends to offer asymptomatic testing, as well, for those interested and worried they may have the virus after an exposure.

Utah State will be using rapid antigen tests so students can get results within an hour. And BYU, which is the first in the state to return this month, said it will also double down on requiring masks and social distancing on campus — and if students don’t comply, all courses could be moved online.

“This is not a new normal,” said the school’s president, Kevin Worthen, in a recorded message to campus. “Demonstrating a loving, genuine concern for the welfare of our neighbor is actually written into our BYU mission statement. It’s who we are.”