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UCSD launches program to test students for coronavirus as it eyes fall reopening of on-campus classes

UC San Diego this week began providing voluntary self-administered coronavirus tests to 5,000 students who are living in campus housing.
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UC San Diego became the first campus in the University of California system to broadly test students for the COVID-19 coronavirus when it launched its “Return to Learn” pilot program May 11 as a step toward reopening the campus for in-person instruction in the fall.

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 initial phase of the voluntary testing program began with 5,000 students currently living on campus. If successful, it could be expanded to 40,000 students and 25,000 faculty and staff members.

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 his or her nose, drop the swab in the container and leave it in a collection box to be picked up by program coordinators, the statement said.

The swabs will be tested for the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, at the Center for Advanced Laboratory Medicine at UCSD Health.

“The program is one of testing, tracing, tracking and isolation,” UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla said May 11. “Starting today at 9 a.m., we administered the first swab. We have a swab station at every dormitory and we are going to collect swabs and give the results tomorrow morning.

“If a student tests positive, we have a doctor call the student. If they are negative, it shows up in our [information system called] MyChart.”

“I’m hoping that this, over the next six weeks, gives us confidence to say we are able to understand the testing, the logistics, statistics, isolation, tracing, tracking and build a complete system to open the campus come mid-September,” said UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla.
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Should a student test positive, he or she must isolate in a separate building for two weeks.

“I’m hoping that this, over the next six weeks, gives us confidence to say we are able to understand the testing, the logistics, statistics, isolation, tracing, tracking and build a complete system to open the campus come mid-September,” Khosla said.

During the pilot program, he said, UCSD will work to “debug the logistics” so it can be implemented on a broader scale.

“Can we collect the swabs reliably? Can we barcode them?” he said. “Can we avoid confusing one student’s results and another? Do we have the logistics in place to move the swabs from where we are collecting them to where we are testing them? How do we upload them into our system? There is a lot of complexity that is beyond technology that we have to deal with.”

Further, Khosla said, there will be extensive training for those who would conduct the tracing to determine with whom those who have tested positive have been in contact.

“If, by the end of June, my colleagues tell me the system is working well that we can detect an infection soon after it happens and contain an outbreak on campus very fast after that, then we are ready to go,” he said.

However, the “limiting effect” at that point becomes cost.

“Right now, the test is subsidized and costs about $30 a test,” Khosla said. “Even if the test was under $20 and we were to test 50,000 students a month, that’s a million dollars a month on just testing. Then add in other infrastructure like swabs, people’s salary that conduct the tracing, testing infrastructure.

“So it could cost $2 million a month. Can I afford $18 million to run this program over nine months?”

But, he said, “if that’s what it costs, that’s what we will spend to open this campus in a physical way.”

To learn more about the program, visit coronavirus.ucsd.edu/return-to-learn.

The San Diego Union-Tribune contributed to this report.