dorm covid

Mary Schvaneveldt, left, and Ellie Wilson do yoga outside of Rich Hall while being quarantined on Monday. Students from four USU dorms were tested and quarantined after the virus was detected in the sewage from those buildings.

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With COVID-19 test results back from just over 80% of the residents in USU’s quarantined dorms, only four residents are known so far to have the virus, but a higher rate of positive tests is expected among the late-arriving results.

In response to the findings so far, 29 suites in the four affected residence halls have been released from quarantine, which makes up about half of the 287 students living in the four affected halls.

The quarantines were announced on Sunday after testing of wastewater from the dormitories indicated high levels of the virus that causes COVID-19. A more complete picture of the situation is expected on Friday, and there is reason to believe the numbers will go up significantly.

Negative tests come back in advance of positive tests, because the positive tests need to be run multiple times under different conditions to confirm they are in fact positive, according to Keith Roper, a USU biological engineering professor involved in the wastewater testing.

Asked if he thought the numbers released to date seem low compared to the wastewater data that led to the quarantine, Roper responded: “At this point, the investigation makes complete sense to me. The fact that 80% of those tests that have come back with four cases reported is pretty consistent with what the expectation is at this point in time.”

Testing sewage for RNA “markers” of the coronavirus was started this spring by the Utah Division of Water Quality at selected sites around the state, then expanded statewide. Roper collaborated with DWQ in the initial program and led implementation of testing at USU at the start of the fall semester.

“There’s another important piece here,” he told The Herald Journal on Thursday. “It appears that all of those 287 students did not submit themselves for testing … There’s going to be some uncertainty as these numbers come out as to whether all the initial 287 residents have in fact been tested and accounted for.”

The four dormitory cases were reported Thursday along with nine other new cases among students — eight off-campus and one other on-campus but not involving a student at one of the quarantined dorms.

The university is gleaning its virus numbers from an online questionnaire that infected and tested students have been asked to fill out.

“We encourage students to continue reporting through the university’s COVID questionnaire,” said USU Spokesperson Emilie Wheeler. “Any student who believes they’ve been in close contact with someone who has tested positive should also fill out the questionnaire. We now have rapid testing available, but students must be in the system to get it.”

USU has its own contact-tracing teams, and they have been busy at work on all the cases reported through the questionnaire. The school is currently reporting 38 active cases of COVID-19 on all of its Utah campuses: five among students on-campus, 29 among students off-campus, three on staff and one on the faculty.

“We appreciate how well the students have cooperated and done their part to prevent the spread of the virus on USU’s campus,” Wheeler said.

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