UC San Diego detects coronavirus in wastewater samples from 5 areas of campus

UC San Diego began sampling wastewater for the coronavirus in late summer and just expanded the testing.

UC San Diego says it detected traces of the COVID-19 coronavirus in five areas of the campus last weekend after it greatly expanded its search for the pathogen in wastewater samples drawn from dozens of buildings.

The positive tests could involve as many as 14 residential halls and two laundries. But university officials said Nov. 24 that the findings also could represent only a small number of sites and very few infections.

The virus is present in a person’s feces during the early phase of infection, making the wastewater from restrooms an ideal place to look for traces of it. Contact tracing can then be used to try to find infected people.

A statement from the university said that anyone who used bathrooms in the 14 dorms and two laundry rooms between 11 a.m. Nov. 22 and 1 p.m. Nov. 23 should get tested for the coronavirus.

The bathrooms are in parts of Seventh College, Rita Atkinson Residences, Eleanor Roosevelt College, Central Mesa and Nuevo West.

“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 Natasha Martin, a UCSD infectious-disease modeler.

About two weeks after Philip Tajanko moved into his UC San Diego dorm room, he tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus.

UCSD began sampling wastewater for the virus in late summer and quickly detected the pathogen at Revelle College and tracked it back to two asymptomatic people who might have been the source.

At the time, the campus had six sampling stations. On Nov. 22, it expanded the number to 52 samplers that examine wastewater from 100 residence halls.

The surveillance program is part of “Return to Learn,” UCSD’s effort to use COVID-19 screening and monitoring to progressively reopen the campus.

Most of the school’s more than 40,000 students are taking all or most of their classes online. But UCSD has housed nearly 10,000 students this fall and is preparing to offer some classes in outdoor tents early next year to expand face-to-face instruction. ◆