One day before the fall semester began at Utah State University, the COVID-19 pandemic generated a crisis with high levels of the virus detected in the sewage of four dormitories and the university announcing a quarantine of students in those facilities.
School officials issued a campus-wide safety alert Sunday notifying the USU community of the action.
“Wastewater testing provides an early alert warning for the university to address potential cases and prevent the spread of the virus further,” the alert stated. “… USU is working with the Utah Department of Health and the Bear River Health Department to organize testing for all 287 students who live in these residence halls to be done today and tomorrow.”
The alert went on to say students at the affected dorms must quarantine immediately until test results are returned, which may take up to 3-4 days. The students are being told to stay in their rooms or suites and not attend class or interact with those outside their household.
The affected dorms are Rich, Jones, Morgan and Davis, all on the north side of campus in vicinity of 12th East and 10th North. The school planned to provide food deliveries to the dorms as test results are awaited.
“Faculty will work with those students who are affected by this quarantine as fall semester begins,” the alert stated. “The Provost’s office will provide further guidance for faculty members in making accommodations for students.”
On Sunday and Monday, dorm residents were bused to the InstaCare facility in Hyde Park, where hours were extended and extra stations were set up for COVID-19 testing.
Following their tests, some students speaking to the news media expressed frustration that dorm residents weren’t informed previously about the wastewater monitoring. They also felt the quarantine and student testing process could have been handled differently.
“We went into the hall and there were two people, and they told us that we were going to have to go get bused down,” said dormitory resident Morgan French. “They didn’t give us any information on where; they just told us we were going to get bused somewhere to get tested for COVID and that they’d been testing our water, without telling us. ... Personally I didn’t hear any information about our water getting tested, and neither did any of my roommates or anyone I’ve talked to.”
Online, others have questioned whether the university has the authority to impose a quarantine.
USU spokesperson Emilie Wheeler addressed this concern, noting the student code was amended before the beginning of the semester with language that compels students to adhere to local and regional health mandates. The code addition states that any student who “flagrantly violates health and safety protocols or represents a threat to others may face temporary suspension from the university.”
Wheeler said although violating the quarantine can be used as a reason to refer a student to the Office of Student Conduct, that’s “about as far as the university can go” in terms of enforcement.
The university also updated its housing contracts this year to allow officials to move students around if deemed necessary for health and safety reasons.
“We made several changes to hopefully account for some of the things that might be happening,” Wheeler said.
The testing of sewage for COVID-19 levels is a new process developed and tested in Logan, Hyrum and a handful of other Utah communities this spring. After early results showed the effectiveness of sewage testing, the Utah Division of Water Quality expanded the testing statewide, and a separate procedure was developed for the USU campus by collaborating biological engineering professor Keith Roper.
Bear River Health Department spokesman Josh Greer said when test results come back, USU staff will do any needed contact tracing and make sure students are taken care of as far as their needs go.
“It’s kind of a hybrid option. Usually the health department deals with all of that. We’re the ones calling them saying you’ve got to isolate, making sure they don’t have any needs, but where these are students on campus, Utah State actually has a system in place to do that now,” Greer said. “I know Utah State has been planning for this for a long time so they could really do their part and take care of their students that are up there and relieve our burden. We’ll still coordinate with USU I’m sure and offer them support and assistance as needed, and if there were contacts in the community off campus, I’m sure we’ll assist with that contact tracing.”