University of Arizona says dorm wastewater testing possibly prevented coronavirus outbreak

Officials at the University of Arizona said this week that they found early signs of COVID-19 in a student dorm by testing wastewater.

Speaking during a press conference Thursday, university President Robert C. Robbins said he received a call earlier this week that the school's wastewater testing system in Tucson had detected “an increased viral load” in samples taken from Linkins Hall.

A team led by Ian Pepper, director of the university’s Water and Energy Sustainable Technology Center, tested the samples five additional times to confirm the presence of COVID-19, Robbins said.

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On Wednesday, the university tested all of the residents in the dorm, about 300 students, and confirmed two positive cases. The two individuals, who were asymptomatic, are now in isolation. Officials are also conducting contact tracing for those infected.

“What we really need to find out are who are the people who are asymptomatic that are positive, so this random testing, this use of wastewater-based epidemiology is going to be really important, as well as watching the compliance metrics of how many people are covering this face, how many people are downloading the app for contact tracing, how many people are completing their daily Wildcat wellness check?” Robbins said.

Students living on campus are required to get tested for COVID-19 before they return to dorms for the fall semester. Wastewater from all campus buildings are tested by the university, officials said.

“With this early detection, we jumped on it right away, tested those youngsters and got them the appropriate isolation where they needed to be,” said Richard Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general who's now the university’s reentry task-force leader.

“Think about if we had missed it, if we waited till they became symptomatic, and they stayed in that dorm for days or a week, or the whole incubation period. How many other people would have been infected?” he said.

Schools across the country have grappled with reopening campuses amid the coronavirus pandemic, offering in-person courses, online courses and other hybrid models.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suspended in-person undergraduate courses earlier this month after reporting several coronavirus clusters since students were welcomed back to campus.