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University of Utah begins push to test all students for COVID-19 by Thanksgiving break

Rice Eccles Stadium University of Utah

(Scott Taylor)

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SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah kicked off an effort Wednesday to test 32,000 students for COVID-19 before Thanksgiving break using rapid antigen tests that can provide results in 15 to 20 minutes.

Beginning Jan. 1, all Utah college students who live on campus or take at least one class in person are expected to be tested for COVID-19 weekly under a new order issued by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on Sunday.

In advance of that requirement, the U. decided to offer one test to every student as soon as possible after White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during a recent visit urged university officials to expand testing efforts.

"It's certainly a massive undertaking for the University of Utah and really for all the colleges and universities in the state. I think we're all in agreement, it's the right thing to do. We certainly expect there'll be a few bumps as we sort out our processes. We ask everyone to be patient with us as we work through that," said U. spokesman Christopher Nelson.

Young people ages 15 to 24 have accounted for a goodly share of COVID-19 cases in Utah in recent months, some of it attributed to large off-campus social gatherings. Testing aims to curb asymptomatic spread of the virus as students return home for the Thanksgiving holiday. All University of Utah classes move online after Thanksgiving.


Students will be sent text messages asking them to reserve a testing appointment, which on Wednesday was conducted in the Rice Eccles Stadium tower.

The test requires a swab of the lower nostril that is applied to a test card roughly the size of a credit card that can detect the presence of proteins found on or within the novel coronavirus. The U. will utilize the app offered by the test manufacturer, which uses test-specific QR codes to tie a test to the subject and provides notification of test results.

People who test positive will be asked to take a PCR test, which looks for the genetic material of the virus and is a highly accurate test.

While testing at public and private institutions across the state is just getting underway this week, the weekly testing requirement starts after the first of the year.

If every student who attends public colleges and universities is tested weekly, the system will require more than 3 million tests. This includes degree-granting colleges and technical colleges. Private colleges and universities would come on top of that.

Of course, many students are attending online and would not have to be tested, but testing is required if they take even one class or lab on campus.

At the University of Utah, it would mean weekly testing of an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 students.

"It really is contingent on making sure the supplies are there from both the state and the federal government. We have no reason to think that the supplies won't be there. This really is going to require that partnership and making sure the supplies are available," Nelson said.

Trisha Dugovic, spokeswoman for the Utah System of Higher Education, said the system submitted a request for about 1 million tests to supply colleges and universities through the end of December to be followed by future requests, she said.

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