Andrew S. Weyrich and Richard R. Orlandi: U’s COVID-19 testing program is making our community safer

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) In this Nov. 18 photo, University of Utah student Abigail Shull takes a rapid COVID-19 test in Salt Lake City.

One of the most powerful tools to limit COVID-19 transmission at the University of Utah — and in the community — is frequent, widespread testing. The university takes this seriously.

We’ve been offering tests for students, staff and faculty who are experiencing symptoms as well as free testing for those among our campus community who are asymptomatic, referred to as surveillance testing, and those who may have been exposed to the virus.

Students who live on campus are required to get tested weekly, while those who visit campus occasionally for activities or in-person classes are encouraged to participated in the weekly testing program.

This semester, through an enormous effort by scientists, administrators and our Health Operations technology team, the U. has developed the ability to conduct accurate, weekly saliva tests that are analyzed in our own on-campus labs using existing infrastructure.

Leveraging research, programming and operational resources throughout the campus, our teams also built an innovative registration, specimen tracking and results communication system that delivers HIPAA-compliant results in as soon as a few hours and no longer than 24 hours. The extremely quick process from saliva sample to result enhances our ability to control spread.

At the center of our ability to do this is one of the university’s extraordinary scientific facilities, the Health Sciences Center Sequencing Core laboratory, which pivoted from its pre-pandemic work analyzing genetic material for research to processing saliva samples full time to detect evidence of the virus that causes COVID-19. If the virus is detected, the person then receives a diagnostic test from ARUP Laboratories to confirm they are positive for COVID-19.

The Sequencing Core Laboratory is one of more than 25 facilities on our campus that provides expert staff and specialized technology to students and faculty, enabling them to conduct world-class research. The university’s investment in these facilities is our commitment to supporting our scientific community’s ability to cultivate innovative, life-changing research. It has now paid dividends in keeping our campus safe during a pandemic.

In addition to expanded testing, the university continues to deploy other tactics to do our part to slow spread of COVID-19. In lieu of a traditional spring break, classes began a week later than usual this semester and students and faculty will get two extra non-instruction days to help them rest and recharge. The university expects that every individual on campus will follow COVID-19 guidelines, including wearing face coverings, washing hands and maintaining an appropriate physical distance from others.

The university also is using a mixed-teaching model to limit the number of people present on campus at any given time. As we did in the fall, the university will have a two-week period, from March 1 to March 14, of online-only instruction and access to student services. This return-to-remote operation is designed to help slow the spread of infection.

Our approach to managing our campus during the pandemic has gone above and beyond the guidance of our state — appropriate given the size of our campus community and our capabilities as the state’s leading research university. We have a major role to play in helping Utah navigate this difficult time as safely as possible and we are fortunate to have distinguished scientists and investigators directing our response. Our researchers also are fully engaged in finding the best ways to prevent, treat and care for those who contract COVID-19.

More than 100 researchers, representing virtually every entity at the U., are involved in this work and many are doing so despite working remotely. They are focused on testing wastewater to detect the virus, modeling how COVID-19 is contracted and spreads, exploring the real and devastating mental health impacts of the pandemic and the implications of isolation on domestic violence.

Our research work is broadly supported by such entities as the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and the United States Department of Health and Human Services — funds that have a direct impact on Utah’s economy.

Their work exemplifies the importance to society of having strong, innovative research institutions like the University of Utah. Our state should be proud of its flagship university and its team of innovators. We are.

Andy Weyrich | University of Utah

Andrew S. Weyrich is vice president for research at the University of Utah.

Richard Orlandi | The University of Utah

Richard R. Orlandi, M.D., is the associate chief medical officer for ambulatory health at University of Utah Health.

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