SALT LAKE CITY — As thousands of college students across the state head back to class in 2021, the possibility of new outbreaks of COVID-19 on university campuses is a real concern. University officials said they're doing everything they can to control the spread, but it is turning out to be a massive undertaking.
Coronavirus outbreaks at colleges and universities in Utah and nationwide dominated the headlines in early fall, and those outbreaks affected surrounding communities.
A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found counties with large universities experienced a 56% increase in COVID-19 when the campuses opened with in-person instruction.
State leaders don't want that to happen again.
"That's where the first surge really started, we know was in the universities," said Gov. Spencer Cox. "Every student should be tested in the first 10 days of coming back to campus."
Testing and retesting
Testing is already underway at several Utah universities for every student who has at least one face-to-face class. At UVU, that number is between 18,000 and 19,000 students.
"It was not as bad as I've heard. It wasn't uncomfortable. It was super quick," said Nicolas Ramsay, a freshman at UVU.
Re-entry testing is a huge undertaking, but it's also just the beginning. Once every returning student is tested, each college and university has additional testing protocols going forward.
The KSL Investigators contacted all of Utah's major universities and learned their plan to test and retest every student for COVID-19 is rigorous, but is it even possible?
"We want to be able to test about 2,500 students a week," said Robin Ebmeyer, director of emergency management and safety for Utah Valley University. "This is how many employees we'll need; this is how much PPE we'll need; this is how many tests we'll need and we just need to now do it. We feel pretty good with our plan but we're going to be tested. We're going to find out."
Universities will offer testing to anyone who has symptoms, but they also plan to do random, asymptomatic testing for hundreds of students every week. On top of that, schools will perform targeted testing when cases pop up or for groups that meet in close quarters.
"It really is a surgical way of going in and looking to see if there's disease prevalence," Ebmeyer said.
For the University of Utah — which has on-campus housing — it will be mandatory for students living on-campus to be tested once a week. Beyond that, all students, faculty and staff can be tested on a weekly basis if they want to.
That goes for most other universities as well.
However, Dixie State University is not doing any faculty or staff COVID-19 testing on-campus. All tests there are reserved for students. DSU has given staff three off-campus testing options where they can go for free, as long as they have health insurance.
Is it sustainable?
"What we want to do is identify the virus early and then separate those students and get them isolated as soon as possible so we can control the spread," said Dave Woolstenhulme, commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education.
All that testing means one thing, thousands and thousands of test kits per week. The big unknown: is it sustainable?
"What will those resources be? Where will they come from and ultimately who will pick up the tab?" asked Woolstenhulme.
Those are still some of the unanswered questions education leaders have, but they're hoping the state and federal government will come through on their promises.
Most college students KSL spoke with were supportive of the increased testing.
"It does need improvement, but it's the best that we have right now and it's a work in progress," said Rachel Allred, a sophomore at Brigham Young University.
"I don't think nearly as many people would get tested if it wasn't mandatory," said Alora Easton, a sophomore at Utah State University. "Sometimes people just need that little extra shove to do the right thing to protect everyone around them."
Some students, however, think universities have not provided enough locations for testing procedures.
"I think they should try and open up more testing sites at the other campuses, especially since Salt Lake Community College has several," said Kara Cornia, a SLCC freshman.
The one thing both students and schools seem to understand though is that it's going to take a lot of effort on everyone's part in order to keep students coming to class.
"If we don't control this, we will be 100% online and we will be sending students back home," said Woolstenhulme. "The students don't want that and neither do we."
Even more changes may be on the way next fall. When the KSL Investigators asked about the possibility of mandatory vaccine requirements at Utah universities and colleges, Woolstenhulme said everything is on the table for fall semester 2021, but those decisions have not yet been made.