The University of Arizona will require students who live in dorms or attend in-person classes on the main campus to be tested weekly for COVID-19 in the spring. Failure to comply will result in students losing access to the university’s Wi-Fi network, President Robert C. Robbins said Dec. 7 in his weekly virtual briefing on the university’s reentry progress.
The university also will begin offering a new swish-gargle PCR test in addition to nasal swab antigen and PCR testing in the spring. The new test involves swishing and gargling a saline solution, then spitting into a tube. Results are usually available the same day.
In addition to the new testing requirements for on-campus students, off-campus students who plan on visiting campus to access other services – such as the library or Student Recreation Center – will be expected to have taken a diagnostic test in the previous week, Robbins said.
Students who do not fulfill testing requirements or expectations will not have university Wi-Fi access until they comply with testing or receive an approved exemption, he said.
“Using Wi-Fi access for compliance provides an effective way to focus enforcement,” he said. “Network access is generally necessary to participate in the activities that bring students to campus, such as taking classes, while those students who are not subject to testing requirements because they are not on campus will not be affected by this measure.”
With these enhancements to the university’s Test, Trace, Treat protocol, Robbins has said he hopes the university can start the spring semester on Jan. 13 in stage two of its reentry plan, which allows for classes of 50 students or fewer to meet in person. However, public health metrics will determine if that’s possible.
The university had been operating in stage two prior to Thanksgiving. Following Thanksgiving break, all courses transitioned to an online format for the remainder of the semester as part of an effort to discourage students from returning to campus after holiday travel. Dec. 9 was the last day of fall classes at the university.
Robbins said a testing blitz will take place from Jan. 6-12 to coincide with spring semester move-in for dorm residents. Isolation dorm rooms will be available, as they were in the fall, for students who receive a positive result.
Swish-Gargle Method Will Transform Campus Testing
Michael Worobey, head of the UArizona Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a member of the university’s BIO5 Institute, has been testing the efficacy of a swish-gargle COVID-19 test that will be used for the weekly student testing in the spring.
He joined Robbins in Monday’s briefing to demonstrate how the test works. It requires swishing and gargling 5 milliliters of sterile saltwater three times before spitting into a tube.
Not only is the test more comfortable than the deep-in-the-nose nasopharyngeal swab normally used in PCR tests, it also appears to be more effective, said Worobey, who has been studying the efficacy of both tests head to head.
Worobeys said he’s found that the swish-gargle test “pulls virus out of about 30 or 35 percent more people than when you test with the nasopharyngeal swab.”
“I think this is going to become the new gold standard for how to test for this virus,” he said. Both the nasopharyngeal swab and swish-gargle tests outperform traditional saliva tests, he added.
Since the swish-gargle tests can be self-administered, it also could help reduce exposure risks for health care workers, who must conduct the nasopharyngeal swab tests, he said.
The university will have the capacity to conduct 3,000 swish-gargle tests a day, he said.
Vaccine Signals ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’
Deepta Bhattacharya, an associate professor of immunobiology and BIO5 Institute member, also joined Monday’s briefing to talk about COVID-19 vaccine developments.
The FDA is set to decide on Dec. 10 whether to grant Emergency Use Authorization for Pfizer’s vaccine candidate.
Bhattacharya stressed that while COVID-19 vaccine development has been accelerated, safety testing has not been rushed. Rather, pre-existing research on coronaviruses SARS and MERS allowed the pre-clinical research and development phase to move faster than usual, and funding from the government’s Operation Warp Speed helped reduce financial risks that can traditionally slow down other phases of the process.
Bhattacharya warned people to beware of vaccine misinformation circulating on social media in the days ahead, and said people must consider the significant threat posed by the virus when deciding whether to get vaccinated.
“There have been over 66 million infections worldwide, over 1 1/2 million dead, and that count is unfortunately rising,” he said. “When you’re trying to decide for yourselves what, individually, the safest choice is in terms of the risks of a vaccine, this is what you’re weighing it against.”
He added that prolonged symptoms also can occur in about 15% of people who survive the virus.
“This is not a virus that you want to intentionally get. It’s really best to be avoided,” he said, especially with a vaccine so close within reach.
“What I’ve heard is everyone who wants a vaccine could potentially have it by June, so I’m optimistically hoping that that’s the case,” Bhattacharya said.
Although vaccine developments are encouraging, continued compliance with public health measures remains critical, Robbins stressed.
“We are months from widespread distribution of the vaccine,” he said. “Please do not let up now. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but … we still need to get there together.”
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