Inside UNCC's Covid prevention strategy
As classes start, UNCC begins checking its sewage for Covid. But without widespread student testing, can it prevent an outbreak?
UNC Charlotte hopes to avoid the experience of UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State and other universities that abruptly closed dorms and classrooms last month. Part of its strategy includes testing wastewater to find Covid cases. (Photo courtesy of UNC Charlotte)
By Pam Kelley
When UNC Charlotte opted last spring to delay fall classes until Labor Day, it may have averted a debacle — a Covid-19 outbreak similar to those that struck UNC Chapel Hill, N.C. State and East Carolina University in August.
UNCC was still weeks away from opening when hundreds of cases on those campuses forced students to leave less than a month after arriving. UNCC was able to delay in-person classes before its students returned. Remote instruction began Monday. It’ll continue until at least Oct. 1.
But now leaders of UNCC, the state’s third-largest campus, with nearly 30,000 students, face another big decision. They’ve got about two weeks to decide whether the campus can safely welcome students at the end of September.
With the chance to learn from other schools’ failures, UNCC is launching an array of Covid safety measures, including a testing program to detect virus in wastewater. And yet UNCC isn’t testing students as they return to campus, a precaution that many experts say is essential.
The UNC system made the decision months ago not to do entry testing at the state’s 16 universities. Its leaders cited the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which specifically didn’t recommend such testing, saying that it “has not been systematically studied.”
But as college towns across America emerge as pandemic hotspots, there’s growing consensus that ongoing mass testing is essential, allowing campuses to catch and quarantine asymptomatic cases before they spread. A study led by the Yale School of Public Health concluded that students need to be tested every two to three days through the semester. In August, in a private call to local and state leaders, White House Coronavirus Task Force Leader Dr. Deborah Birx recommended testing all students returning for fall semester and preparing for “surge testing” thousands of students per day, according to the Center for Public Integrity, which obtained a recording of the call.
Last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, echoed that advice, telling CNN that colleges should only consider reopening if they can test students upon arrival and throughout the semester.
Such aggressive testing is costly and complicated. And it can fail if students don’t follow social distancing rules. The University of Alabama tested its students — more than 25,000 — before classes started, but after numerous social gatherings, the school ended up with more than 800 cases in a single week.
Still, dozens of campuses, including public schools such as the University of Maryland and University of Illinois, are attempting to heed those guidelines. In North Carolina, Davidson College and Duke University are among schools that opted to test asymptomatic students upon arrival and throughout the semester. So far, they have kept positive cases low.
The UNC system has until now focused its testing more narrowly, on students with symptoms or students who’ve had contact with someone who tested positive. That focus can miss asymptomatic carriers. (On Tuesday, UNC-Chapel Hill announced that it would begin daily testing of asymptomatic students remaining on campus and begin a voluntary program for off-campus asymptomatic students in the next few weeks, according to Raleigh’s News & Observer.)
Testing the wastewater: UNCC is also rolling out an additional tool to find asymptomatic cases — an early-detection project that tests wastewater for presence of the coronavirus. This semester, researchers will conduct three-times-a-week testing of 20 campus sites, mostly residence halls.
A similar project has already proven successful at the University of Arizona. After wastewater monitoring detected higher viral loads in one dorm’s sewage, the university tested all 311 dorm residents and found two asymptomatic carriers.
By mid-September, UNCC will be able to process up to 1,000 Covid tests a week. If virus is detected in a building’s wastewater, the school will test students living in building areas where the wastewater originated, according to the school’s Office of Communications, which provided written answers to The Ledger’s questions.
UNCC’s prevention strategies also include lower-density campus housing that gives all students single-occupancy bedrooms and on-line health checks that direct symptomatic students to testing.
To discourage the sorts of off-campus parties and gatherings that created viral stews at other campuses, the school is asking students to take the Niners Pledge, promising to wear masks and follow social distancing rules. It’s also sending letters warning that deliberate safety violations could result in suspension or expulsion.
NEW NORM(al): Although UNC Charlotte is preparing for the arrival of students at the end of the month, some worry that it might not be able to control the spread of the coronavirus. (Ledger photo by Pam Kelley)
Despite those efforts, some students, including Dick Beekman, a junior from Charlotte, hope the school opts for remote learning all semester. “When you look at how rapidly it can go from manageable to out of control,” he said, “I’m not sure any school as large as ours can put together a plan to guarantee safety.”
John Cox, who directs UNCC’s Center for Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Studies, also doubts that a 30,000-student campus can open safely without more robust testing. He’s one of the UNC system employees who recently sued the UNC Board of Governors, the university system and Gov. Roy Cooper, arguing that they planned to open campuses that they knew to be unsafe.
The lawsuit, filed in August, came days after UNC Chapel Hill opened despite a warning from the Orange County health director. The director had cited weaknesses in the school’s plans for testing, contact tracing and transportation and urged UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewitz to start classes remotely for at least five weeks. The chancellor said no, despite pressure from students, faculty and staff.
“I discussed this matter with the UNC System and we were advised by the UNC System to stay the course with our current plan,” he wrote in a letter to the university community.
Less than two weeks later, Chapel Hill shifted to remote classes and directed many residential students to leave campus.
Cox blames the UNC Board of Governors for a pandemic response he calls “disastrous and reckless and incompetent.”
“That’s put university administrators in a terrible position,” he said. “I don’t often feel real sorry for our upper administration, but I do know they really have been working at this the last few months.” UNCC and North Carolina’s other public campuses, he said, “are to a large degree at the mercy of the Board of Governors.”
Asked whether the UNC system stands by its decision not to do entry testing, Josh Ellis, a system spokesman, reiterated that the CDC still doesn’t recommend it, and neither does the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
But without that testing, can UNCC open safely? The school provided a written response from Rick Tankersley, vice chancellor for research and economic development. He’s helping lead the school’s task force on Covid-19 testing and tracing.
Tankersley’s response didn’t directly answer the question but points out that UNCC has protocols for testing both “symptomatic individuals and asymptomatic individuals who have been in contact with a diagnosed person” in addition to environmental monitoring for the virus through wastewater.
“We are currently assessing how both our wastewater and surveillance testing can be expanded to provide additional screening for asymptomatic individuals on our campus,” Tankersley said in the response.
UNCC leaders plan to announce the week of Sept. 21 whether the campus will go in-person or remote for the rest of the semester. Until then, the sprawling campus will be quiet, without its usual throngs of young people, as it was on Monday, the first day of remote classes. The smattering of students on campus that day included Josh Cox, who wore a black mask as he worked on his laptop in the student union.
Cox, a sophomore, had driven from his home in Rowan County for a change of scenery. He missed in-person classes, he said. It was harder to stay focused, and he was weary of staring at his laptop screen. He hopes UNCC will be able to welcome students back, he said, “as long as they think it’s safe.”
Pam Kelley, a Charlotte journalist, has covered higher education for The Charlotte Observer. She’s author of Money Rock: A Family's Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South.
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