UC San Diego to mass-test students for the coronavirus

UC San Diego next week will begin giving voluntary self-administered coronavirus tests to 5,000 students who are living in campus housing.
UC San Diego next week will begin giving voluntary self-administered coronavirus tests to 5,000 students who are living in campus housing.

UC San Diego will begin mass-testing students for the COVID-19 coronavirus next week as a major step toward resuming on-campus courses in the fall.

The university’s experimental “Return to Learn” program will begin Monday, May 11, when UCSD starts giving self-administered tests to 5,000 students who are living in campus housing. The testing is voluntary; students must opt in.

If the program works, UCSD officials plan to test about 65,000 students, faculty and staff monthly.

UCSD will become the first campus in the University of California system and one of the first in the United States to broadly test students for the coronavirus. The university operates UC San Diego Health, which includes two major hospitals and many clinics, all which are tied to one of the largest medical research programs in the country.

The Return to Learn pilot program will cost about $500,000 over two months.

UCSD said it will initially give 5,000 undergraduate and graduate residential students nasal swab-based coronavirus tests and that it will check housing wastewater and surface collections for signs of the virus.

Students “will go to one of several designated sites on campus to pick up a clean nasal swab in a specimen collection container,” UCSD said in a statement. “Using a downloaded barcode-reader app on a smart phone, the participant will scan the unique barcode on the container, linking their cellphone number to the specimen and generating a time stamp.

“The participant will then swab the inside of their own nose, drop the swab in the container and leave it in a collection box to be picked up by program coordinators. The swabs will be tested for the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, at the Center for Advanced Laboratory Medicine at UC San Diego Health.”

The university expects to produce test results within roughly 24 hours. Campuswide testing could begin in early September if the program works.

If a person tests positive, the student will be notified and referred to a public health team that will determine whether the participant has been in close contact with other people, UCSD said. The university emphasized that “in some circumstances, students living on campus who are shedding virus will be provided with dedicated campus housing where they may self-isolate with support until they are no longer infectious.”

“This effort will leverage the ingenuity and expertise of our clinicians, molecular biologists, epidemiologists, bioinformaticians and others to work toward a tailored map of where the virus is and where it isn’t,” UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla said in a statement. “We expect these efforts to help put us in the best possible position to minimize virus outbreaks and implement new interventions as needed, should we resume in-person activities this fall.”

Like other schools, UCSD had to shift to online classes in March and April as the coronavirus spread. The shift has been unpopular with many students, some who say that in-person classes offer a much richer learning experience. Students also don’t like paying full tuition for online classes.

“My instinct tells me that the more that people understand how this is managing the risk of spread, the more they will be able to manage their own anxiety,” Khosla told The San Diego Union-Tribune.