UNC Charlotte plans to increase coronavirus mitigation testing in residence halls and expand wastewater testing campus-wide, announced Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Dr. Kevin Bailey in a Student Government Association (SGA) meeting on Jan. 21.
This week the University will begin testing 400 on-campus residents per week as compared to 250 students per week during the fall 2020 semester. They aim to test 800 residents weekly after Feb. 22, when in-person classes are set to resume.
On Jan. 11, Chancellor Sharon Gaber announced that residence hall move-in would be delayed until Feb. 18 except for those students with extenuating circumstances. According to Bailey, about 2,800 students have elected to live on campus during the spring semester, down from 3,100 students in the fall.
Wastewater testing was exclusive to these residence halls during the fall semester, but it will now be expanded to include buildings like the Student Union, UREC or Atkins Library.
“When we expand out, we don’t have the opportunity to do the follow-up search testing because it’s a transient space,” Bailey explained to SGA members. “But that will at least give us a sense for the prevalence of the virus based on the people who may have flowed through those spaces at the time we collected the sample.”
Bailey added that buildings in which SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is detected would likely not be shut down and instead undergo a “deep cleaning” conducted by maintenance staff scheduled for the night shift. It is unclear whether the University will communicate the results of this routine testing with students and staff.
UNC Charlotte was among the first universities to implement a wastewater testing system to mitigate the coronavirus's spread. Bioinformatics professor Dr. Cynthia Gibas and assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Dr. Mariya Munir led the effort with support from faculty and graduate students.
During the fall 2020 semester, routine wastewater testing detected SARS-CoV-2 in residence halls and triggered dorm-wide testing 17 times.
According to Bailey, UNC Charlotte tried to partner with nearby off-campus apartment complexes to implement wastewater testing at these sites, but only Aspen Heights expressed interest in the initiative. The University reported four off-campus clusters of coronavirus cases last fall.
The expansion in preventative testing comes as coronavirus cases continue to surge at UNC Charlotte, in Mecklenburg County and across the country. During the week of Jan. 4, UNC Charlotte reported its highest campus testing positivity rate yet at 5.7%. This number has since decreased to 3.6%. Mecklenburg County reports a positivity rate of 12.4% over the past week.
More than three weeks before the official residence hall move-in date, UNC Charlotte reports 55 on-campus cases of COVID-19.