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UC San Diego Announces Major Expansion Of COVID-19 Testing

A man walks by a COVID-19 testing sign at UC San Diego campus, Sept. 28, 2020.
Jacob Aere
A man walks by a COVID-19 testing sign at UC San Diego campus, Sept. 28, 2020.

UC San Diego is boosting its coronavirus testing efforts and increasing the number of samples taken for wastewater early detection, among other efforts to prevent the spread of the virus on campus, university leaders announced Tuesday.

UCSD calls its combined pandemic safety efforts the Return to Learn program, a suite of education, monitoring, testing, intervention and notification tools intended to keep students and faculty on campus safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"While UC San Diego is one of the few colleges in the nation with low rates of infection and a large student body on campus, the university remains vigilant to reduce transmission of virus in our community to the greatest extent possible," UCSD Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla said. "Our multi- layered strategy provides resiliency along many dimensions of the Return to Learn plan."


UCSD has nearly 10,000 students living on campus and thousands more living off campus. The university has maintained an average positivity rate between 0.17% and 0.43% among on- and off-campus students during its fall quarter. San Diego County's average positivity rate was between 2.7% and 6.1% in that same time frame.

One way UCSD is expanding detection is increasing the number of wastewater sampler locations.

The campus first started monitoring wastewater outflow in summer with six wastewater samplers and expanded to 52 samplers on Nov. 22. The additional samplers cover more than 100 residential buildings. In the coming months, the campus will have up to 200 samplers online to cover the entire campus.

RELATED: San Diego County Crosses 1,000 COVID-19 Deaths As Hospitalizations Surge

"This wastewater testing system is a way to stay one step ahead of the virus on campus at a time when there is increasing viral activity in the county," said Return to Learn project co-lead Natasha Martin, associate professor of medicine at UCSD School of Medicine.


"With wastewater, we are essentially running pooled testing of every student in the monitored buildings every day. The critical part program is that when we get a positive wastewater signal, we notify those in the buildings draining wastewater into the manhole where we detected the positive signal, and we encourage them to come in and get tested. Those who are positive can move into isolation housing."

The new samplers detected traces of the novel coronavirus coming from nine different areas on campus on Nov. 23 and Nov. 28. The university notified residents and more than 700 students were tested.

As of Nov. 30, three students were identified as shedding virus in buildings covered by the alert, likely contributing to three of the nine different areas which detected traces of the novel coronavirus.

The university will continue to monitor the areas where active virus was recently detected to see if the traces have been eliminated. UCSD has set aside 604 units in two separate buildings for quarantine and isolation housing.

Martin says that if an individual tests negative on Monday and somehow picks up the virus on Tuesday, UC San Diego can detect it that day through wastewater surveillance. As soon as virus is detected by a monitoring station, the university releases an alert notice asking community members who live in or visit the area to be tested as soon as possible.

UCSD's wastewater expansion will continue in the coming weeks.

In light of the recent rise in cases around San Diego County, the campus also announced an increase in asymptomatic testing for students and employees from a biweekly to a weekly basis at no cost starting Nov. 30.

According to university leaders, the campus has more testing capacity than any other university in the state, with two labs processing the tests — the Center for Advanced Laboratory Medicine and Expedited Covid Identification Environment. On average, UC San Diego processes about 1,000 to 1,500 tests per day.

Students can pick-up and drop-off a testing kit between the hours of 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., seven days a week at Seventh College, Nuevo East and the Price Center Ballroom B.

The tests will be made available soon at vending machines, which will be placed at 20 locations across campus and will also include PPE, such as masks which students can access by swiping their student ID. Self-administered testing will also become available for staff in winter quarter.

UCSD piloted the CA COVID Notify mobile app this summer and UCSD Health is now partnering with the California Department of Public Health to plan a possible statewide deployment of the app.

More than 18,000 UCSD staff and students — more than 50% of the on- campus population — are now using the system, which uses a smartphone's Bluetooth capabilities to alert people if they've come in contact with someone who tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the last 14 days.

More than 20 alerts have been issued on campus since the pilot was introduced, helping campus residents and visitors alike learn they may have been exposed.