UC San Diego trying to avoid the coronavirus chaos that has upended SDSU – The San Diego Union-Tribune

Posted: September 22, 2020 at 1:57 pm

San Diego State University is reeling from a calamitous outbreak of COVID-19, with 882 students testing positive or probable. Is the same thing about to happen at UC San Diego?

The answer will begin to emerge this weekend as 7,500 undergraduates start to move into meticulously cleaned dorms on the sprawling La Jolla campus for the start of the fall quarter.

UCSD has been running drills that simulate mass infections, but even that may not have fully prepared the university for what it is about to face as it begins its 60th year.

College students nationwide have been shrugging off the pandemic, leading to tens of thousands of COVID-19 infections and billions of dollars in costs.

The trouble spots include SDSU, which is providing mostly online classes to about 35,000 students this fall, most of whom wont be on campus due to the pandemic.

But the university wanted to offer a semblance of normalcy to some of its youngest students. So it put 2,600 of them in dorms with the proviso that everyone wear masks and socially distance.

SDSU didnt pressure students to comply, or require that everyone get tested for COVID-19.

Many students ended up ignoring the rules. Over two weekends in August, the Union-Tribune watched hundreds of them roaming without masks, especially in the party-hearty section of the College Area neighborhood.

Signs provide warnings and information about COVID-19 on the campus of San Diego State University on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. The university had to pause in-person instruction in an attempt to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

At a bash on Pontiac Street, about 35 students had to squeeze past each other just to get around. Not far away, other mask-less students lingered outside the Paseo Place housing complex, two blocks from the student health center.

Within two weeks, the coronavirus was spreading rapidly. Dorm students were placed in quarantine. The small number of in-person classes were shifted online. The campus enlisted administrators to help patrol the streets for students shirking the rules. And SDSU last week finally began requiring on-campus dorm students to be tested for the coronavirus.

The university knew over the summer that students were having parties in the College Area, and that they could spread the virus, but they did not do enough to make sure things wouldnt get out of hand, said Scott Kelley, a microbiologist at SDSU who studies how aerosols spread indoor.

We can spend $8 million on a basketball coach, $30 million on Mission Valley, but we cant do things to make sure students wear masks and get tested. It doesnt make any sense. (Kelleys bio).

To date, at least 882 SDSU students have tested positive or probably for the coronavirus, a number that could contribute to another round of state-ordered restrictions on where people can go and what they can do in San Diego County.

SDSUs neighbors in the College Area are especially worried about being infected by students. County health officials say students have already spread the virus to at least seven people outside the SDSU community.

Less than 20 miles away, UCSD has been game planning what it should do when 38,000 students begin the fall quarter on Sept. 28 with a slate of mostly online classes.

About 11,000 undergraduate and graduate students will live in campus housing.

Jayden Pearson receives a coronavirus test before checking into her dorm at UCSD on Saturday.

(Sandy Huffaker)

The university will try to prevent an outbreak by conducting regular mandatory testing, monitoring waste water for the virus, and getting people to use a cellphone app that tells them if theyve had contact with infected people.

UCSD also will have student ambassadors moving about, helping coax students into wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart.

As much as anything, defeating COVID-19 on campus involves getting rambunctious, hormone-charged teenagers to keep their distance and cover their faces.

The stakes are high.

If we cant open the school in a way they can stay here, weve got to either close the school or lock them down in dorm rooms, said Dr. Robert T. Chip Schooley, a professor of medicine who is helping guide UCSDs Return to Learn program.

Nobody wants to spend the next four years with what they hoped would be their college lives in their grandmothers attic with an iPad, looking at lectures on Zoom.

He added: Weve got a virus that only induces short-term immunity. People are already getting reinfected who were infected back in February.

At the moment , UCSD likes its odds for success.

The campus predicts that few of the 7,500 undergraduates moving into dorms will test positive for the virus. And those who do will be quickly isolated.

Maybe it will be 30, maybe it will be 20, maybe it will be 40, said Dr. Angela Scioscia, interim executive director of Student Health and Wellbeing at UCSD. I dont expect 100 (infections). That would be a bit of a surprise.

Theres concern that the campus, which has had 264 people test positive for the virus since March, is suffering from hubris. And much of that concern comes from within UCSD, which rarely airs its problems publicly.

More than 600 UCSD students, faculty, staff and alumni recently issued an open letter that asks the university to drop plans to repopulate its dorms and offer some in-person classes key parts of Return to Learn.

The universitys refusal to acknowledge fears about Return to Learn, as well as the release of recent data on the universitys budget and finances, suggests that the university is being run as a business rather than as a community and that financial incentives are being prioritized at the expense of community well-being, the open letter says.

The signatories included history professor Cathy Gere.

The idea that we can dictate student behavior and roll out technical solutions has been shown again and again to be demonstrably untrue, Gere told the Union-Tribune.

The full scope of the problem facing college campuses and their surrounding communities isnt known.

But a New York Times survey of more than 1,600 colleges and universities says that at least 88,000 students, faculty and staff have tested positive since the pandemic began, and that at least 60 have died.

The survey, last updated on Sept. 10, says SDSU has the highest number of infections of any college in California. UCSD, which has a medical school, two hospitals and a healthcare network, ranked third.

A series of jolting images has crystallized how indifferent many students are to the pandemic.

Several virus-positive students at Miami University in Ohio were filmed hosting a large party for classmates. At Indiana University, dozens of students were videotaped jammed together, mingling mask-less on party boats. And University of Wisconsin students were photographed moving out of a dorm due to an outbreak.

The images and the trouble at SDSU have not led UCSD to back away from Return to Learn. It also didnt deter Point Loma Nazarene University, which just added added 526 dorms students, and the University of San Diego, which is adding 519 this weekend.

Sage Greve, from Switzerland, prepares to make her bed in her dorm room at the University of San Diego on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020.

(Sandy Huffaker)

All three schools say young students often fare better academically when they live on or near campus. Students also have been pushing schools to open the dorms so that they can better experience college life.

UCSD also is flexing its muscles as one of the nations 10 largest research schools.

On average, the campus pulls in about $4 million a day in new research money, the majority of which goes to health and medicine. UCSD is helping run two major COVID-19 vaccine trials and is working on numerous therapeutic drugs to fight the virus.

The university also found ways to more quickly and cheaply test people for COVID-19, an advance its about to exploit. UCSD will test new undergraduate dorm students when they arrive and again 12 to 16 days later to make sure they catch those with the virus. It added the second test after noticing it was an effective strategy at other schools. Testing will continue, at intervals, through the fall.

Additionally, UCSD is making the most of a time advantage; its classes begin about a month later than most schools, so it has more time to tweak Return to Learn.

The university is putting together a system to continually check waste water for the presence of the virus, which can show up in fecal matter, highlighting the location of infections.

During a recent drill, UCSD unexpectedly found the virus in the Revelle College area at the south end of campus. The school quickly tested about 700 people and found two people who were the source of the reading. They were placed in isolation.

This totally transforms our ability to respond to an outbreak, sad Rob Knight, an acclaimed biologist UCSD hired five years ago for his expertise in studying microbes.

Everyone poops, right? This allows us to find populations (of people) who are infectious that are otherwise inaccessbile. The waste water signal shows up as much as a week before people start having symptoms and showing up in the clinic. So it gives us an excellent warning system, especially to test asymptomatic students.

UCSD hopes to have the system fully operational in October.

The university also got permission from the state last week to test out Apple and Google exposure notification technology, which uses Bluetooth technology in cellphones to inform students and staff when they have come into contact with someone who is infected.

If I get COVID-19, Im going to tell my family right away. But I may not remember or even know everybody that Ive encountered in the last two weeks, said Dr. Christopher Longhurst, the chief information officer and associate chief medical officer at UC San Diego Health.

Thats where this application can help notify the people whose names and phone numbers I dont have. Its designed to help the community, making it safer for everyone.

Its unclear whether the app will play a significant role in slowing the spread of COVID-19, despite the optimism of school officials. Users must choose to use the program, and some may take a pass because theyre concerned about preserving their privacy.

Apple, Google, the university and the state have said often that the cellphone technology does not collect identifying information, including location data.

Grayson Henard, from Fresno, unpacks his belongings at the Tower dormitory at UCSD on Saturday.

(Sandy Huffaker)

UCSDs strategy is deep, complex, and costly. But these kind of plans wont work without student buy-in, as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign learned over the past couple of weeks.

Illinois has upwards of 40,000 students, all of whom were tested twice a week for the coronavirus. Many of them werent following anti-COVID-19 rules. By the time Labor Day rolled around, the school was reporting more than 1,000 infections.

The simple lesson: kids will be kids.

Despite reputation to the contrary, I dont think UCSD and SDSU students are very different, Longhurst said. Technology wont change that but can help limit the size of outbreaks.

The pressure is rising to get things right, which was evident Saturday at UCSD as the first undergraduates began moving into dorms.

They underwent drive-through testing at an isolated spot on campus. Then they reported for precisely scheduled move-in appointments that heavily emphasized social distancing. No one had to jockey for a parking spot.

Kim Peterson of Fountain Valley liked what she saw Saturday as she and her husband Gene pulled to the curb outside The Village residence hall to drop off their twin daughters, Grace and Ellie.

Weve been following the COVID situation very closely and feel really confident about UCSDs Return to Learn program, Kim Peterson said. Theyve been wonderful about educating parents and students about whats expected of students this fall.

Grace stood nearby, holding a pillow that shed brought from home.

UCSD is doing really good testing, she said. Im really excited to be here.

Staff writers Paul Sisson, Lyndsay Winkley and Jonathan Wosen contributed to this report.

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UC San Diego trying to avoid the coronavirus chaos that has upended SDSU - The San Diego Union-Tribune

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