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UC San Diego seeks to avoid the coronavirus chaos that has upended San Diego State

Holly Fleurbaaig moves her belongings into the dormitories at UC San Diego
Holly Fleurbaaig moves her belongings into the dormitories at UC San Diego with help from her mom, Chantelle, and dad, Graham, on Sept. 19.
(Sandy Huffaker)

The La Jolla campus will rely heavily on technology and peer pressure as thousands of students populate its dorms.

San Diego State University is reeling from an outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Is the same thing about to happen at UC San Diego?

The answer will begin to emerge soon as 7,500 undergraduates move into meticulously cleaned dorms on the sprawling La Jolla campus for the fall quarter that starts Monday, Sept. 28.

UCSD has been running drills that simulate mass infections, but even that may not have fully prepared the university for what it is about to face as it begins its 60th year.

College students nationwide have been shrugging off the pandemic, leading to tens of thousands of coronavirus infections and billions of dollars in costs.

The trouble spots include San Diego State, which is providing mostly online classes to about 35,000 students this fall, most of whom won’t be on campus due to the pandemic.

But the university wanted to offer a semblance of normalcy to some of its youngest students. So it put 2,600 of them in dorms with the proviso that everyone wear masks and socially distance. SDSU didn’t pressure students to comply, or require that everyone get tested for the coronavirus.

Many students ended up ignoring the rules, and within two weeks, the virus was spreading rapidly. Dorm students were placed in quarantine. The small number of in-person classes were shifted online. And SDSU last week began requiring on-campus dorm students to be tested. At least 850 students have tested positive or probable for the coronavirus.

San Diego State’s neighbors are worried about being infected by students. County health officials said students had spread the virus to at least seven people outside the SDSU community.

Less than 20 miles away, UC San Diego has been planning what it should do when 38,000 students begin the fall quarter with a slate of mostly online classes. About 11,000 undergraduate and graduate students will live in campus housing.

Jayden Pearson receives a coronavirus test before checking into her dorm at UC San Diego on Sept. 19.
(Sandy Huffaker)

The university will try to prevent an outbreak by conducting regular mandatory testing, monitoring wastewater for the virus and getting people to use a cellphone app that tells them if they’ve had contact with infected people.

UCSD also will have student ambassadors moving about, helping to coax students into wearing masks and staying six feet apart.

The stakes are high.

“If we can’t open the school in a way they can stay here, we’ve got to either close the school or lock them down in dorm rooms,” said Dr. Robert “Chip” Schooley, a professor of medicine who is helping guide UCSD’s Return to Learn program.

“Nobody wants to spend the next four years with what they hoped would be their college lives in their grandmother’s attic with an iPad, looking at lectures on Zoom.”

At the moment , UCSD likes its odds for success.

The campus projects that few of the 7,500 undergraduates moving into dorms will test positive for the virus. And those who do will be quickly isolated.

“Maybe it will be 30, maybe it will be 20, maybe it will be 40,said Dr. Angela Scioscia, interim executive director of student health and well-being at UCSD. “I don’t expect 100 [infections]. That would be a bit of a surprise.”

Internal dissent

There’s concern that the campus, which has had 264 people test positive for the virus since March, is suffering from hubris. And much of that concern comes from within UCSD.

More than 600 students, faculty, staff and alumni recently issued an open letter that asks the university to drop plans to repopulate its dorms and offer some in-person classes — key parts of Return to Learn.

“The university’s refusal to acknowledge fears about Return to Learn, as well as the release of recent data on the university’s budget and finances, suggests that the university is being run as a business rather than as a community and that financial incentives are being prioritized at the expense of community well-being,” the open letter states.

The signatories included history professor Cathy Gere, who told The San Diego Union-Tribune that “the idea that we can dictate student behavior and roll out technical solutions has been shown again and again to be demonstrably untrue.”

The full scope of the problem facing college campuses — and their surrounding communities — isn’t known.

A New York Times survey of more than 1,600 colleges and universities said that at least 88,000 students, faculty and staff had tested positive since the pandemic began and at least 60 had died.

The survey, last updated Sept. 10, said SDSU had the highest number of infections of any college in California. UCSD ranked third.

UCSD’s measures

The trouble at SDSU has not led UCSD to back away from Return to Learn. It also didn’t deter Point Loma Nazarene University, which just added 526 dorm students, and the University of San Diego, which just added 519.

All three schools say young students often fare better academically when they live on or near campus. Students also have been pushing schools to open the dorms so they can better experience college life.

UCSD also is flexing its muscles as one of the nation’s 10 largest research schools.

On average, the campus pulls in about $4 million a day in new research money, the majority of which goes to health and medicine. UCSD is helping to run two major COVID-19 vaccine trials and is working on several therapeutic drugs to fight the virus.

The university also found ways to more quickly and cheaply test people for the virus. UCSD will test new undergraduate dorm students when they arrive and again 12 to 16 days later. It added the second test after noticing it was an effective strategy at other schools. Testing will continue at intervals through the fall.

Additionally, UCSD’s classes begin about a month later than most schools, so it has had more time to tweak Return to Learn.

The university is putting together a system to continually check wastewater for the presence of the virus, which can show up in fecal matter, highlighting the location of infections.

During a recent drill, UCSD unexpectedly found the virus in the Revelle College area at the south end of campus. The school quickly tested about 700 people and found two who were the source of the reading. They were placed in isolation.

This “totally transforms our ability to respond to an outbreak,” sad Rob Knight, a biologist UCSD hired five years ago for his expertise in studying microbes. “This allows us to find [people] who are infectious that are otherwise inaccessible. The wastewater signal shows up as much as a week before people start having symptoms and showing up in the clinic. So it gives us an excellent warning system, especially to test asymptomatic students.”

UCSD hopes to have the system fully operational in October.

The university also got permission from the state to test Apple and Google exposure notification technology, which uses Bluetooth in cellphones to inform students and staff when they have come in contact with someone who is infected.

“If I get COVID-19, I’m going to tell my family right away. But I may not remember or even know everybody that I’ve encountered in the last two weeks,” said Dr. Christopher Longhurst, chief information officer and associate chief medical officer at UC San Diego Health. “That’s where this application can help notify the people whose names and phone numbers I don’t have. It’s designed to help the community, making it safer for everyone.”

However, it’s unclear how significant the app’s role will be in slowing the spread of the virus, since people must choose to use the program.

Grayson Henard, from Fresno, unpacks his belongings at the Tower dormitory at UCSD.
(Sandy Huffaker)

‘Really confident’

The pressure is rising to get things right, which was evident over the weekend at UCSD as the first undergraduates began moving into dorms.

They underwent drive-through testing at an isolated spot on campus. Then they reported for precisely scheduled move-in appointments that heavily emphasized social distancing. No one had to jockey for a parking spot.

Kim Peterson of Fountain Valley said she liked what she saw Sept. 19 as she and her husband, Gene, pulled to the curb outside The Village residence hall to drop off their twin daughters, Grace and Ellie.

“We’ve been following the COVID situation very closely and feel really confident about UCSD’s Return to Learn program,” Peterson said. “They’ve been wonderful about educating parents and students about what’s expected of students this fall.”

Grace stood nearby, holding a pillow she had brought from home.

“UCSD is doing really good testing,” she said. “I’m really excited to be here.”

— Gary Robbins writes for The San Diego Union-Tribune. U-T staff writers Paul Sisson, Lyndsay Winkley and Jonathan Wosen contributed to this report.