Southern Utah University will begin testing students with in-person classes for COVID-19 on Thursday in the wake of the state of emergency announced by Gov. Gary Herbert on Nov. 8.
Tests for those without symptoms will be administered in the Student Center Ballroom from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but students need to make an appointment first online. The free, non-invasive tests will be given to students on a first-come-first-serve basis, according to an email sent to students by SUU President Scott L. Wyatt.
Students who are demonstrating COVID-19 symptoms, including fever, dry cough or the loss of taste and smell, can schedule to receive a test at the Alumni House by appointment.
“The Utah Department of Health encourages students to come and test so that we’ll know who has [COVID-19], even if they don’t recognize it, and let them get identified as soon as we can,” said SUU Provost Jon Anderson. “Isolating those cases early can help a lot more.”
Herbert announced the plan to test every student who attends in-person classes at all public and private institutions in the state in his Nov. 8 press conference. According to the state health department, people ages 15 to 24 have been a driving force of the spread of the coronavirus in Utah.
Cases of COVID-19 have been relatively low at SUU in comparison to other universities in the state, which is cause for celebration for President Wyatt.
“I think students have been amazing,” President Wyatt said in an interview. “When I walk around campus, it seems like people are doing their very best. Inside of buildings, it’s very rare that I see someone without a mask on, and outside it seems like a majority of students are wearing them outside too.”
The nasal swab antigen tests that SUU and other schools in the state will use were purchased from Abbott Laboratories, according to Provost Anderson who serves on the Utah System of Higher Education Task Force for COVID-19.
Students will administer their own tests under the guidance of volunteers from SUU’s Department of Nursing by inserting the swab “about an inch” up their nose in each nostril and setting it on an indicator strip, Provost Anderson said. They’ll then pour a solution on it, and the indicator tab will display two colors within 15-20 minutes. One indicates that the test was valid, and the other shows whether the test was positive or negative.
Provost Anderson explained that students will have to leave immediately after the test because the university doesn’t want those who test positive to be “hanging around.” Students will receive test results via email after their test.
The nursing student volunteers earn clinical rotation credit for their coursework while administering tests. According to Provost Anderson, if the university needs to test for an extended period of time, it may hire the students as university employees.
He said the school requested and received 2,500 tests from the state health department to use before Thanksgiving Break. The school has also requested for 10,000 more tests to be administered through the end of December.
“We’ll keep testing until the tests are gone,” Provost Anderson said. “My understanding is that the state hasn’t received any funding for testing in the spring yet. So we’re waiting to see what that will look like.”
President Wyatt said the pool of COVID-19 antigen tests purchased by the federal government for Utah schools would first be administered to schools along the Wasatch Front, where positivity rates have been higher. UDOH would then allocate available tests to SUU, according to how many the school requested.
“They told us clearly that they were going to start working up there and then gradually come to our school,” President Wyatt said. “We’re actually happy to do the tests, but I think the fact that they’re getting back to us last means they know we’re in better shape than anybody else. I’m taking that all in the positive.”
President Wyatt said he has heard concerns from students who do not want to be tested. While the school will encourage students to comply with the governor’s mandate, SUU will not offer punitive action for anyone who does not want to take a test, according to President Wyatt.
Almost all face-to-face instruction on campus will transition remotely after Thanksgiving Break, which will begin on Nov. 25. Provost Anderson said that he was “very thankful” for the decision to move classes online after Thanksgiving.
“Everyone was able to plan accordingly, and I think that will be the best option,” Provost Anderson said. “I’m glad we made the decision early.”
Provost Anderson headed the university’s COVID-19 task force over the summer as they prepared to create a safe environment for students in the fall. He said the school prepared for the “worst-case scenario” and that the school has had plans ready for most of the challenges it faced in bringing students back to campus.
“We made a lot of plans for this fall,” President Wyatt said. “I’d say we overplanned for the fall, which is good. We were ready for anything, and it hasn’t been nearly as bad as we expected.”
The school set aside several dormitory rooms to accommodate students in quarantine, but the extra rooms have largely gone unused, President Wyatt said. The school even negotiated with the Hampton Inn hotel to reserve space in case of overflow at the dorms, but the school hasn’t sent any students there to quarantine this semester.
Of the 167 total number of cases of COVID-19 on campus, Provost Anderson said he doesn’t know of anyone who has been hospitalized, though he admits he’s not familiar with each individual case.
“We’re seeing almost no spread on campus,” Provost Anderson explained. “There’s virtually no spread in classrooms. Almost all the spread is happening in residences and at off-campus events. If we could say one thing, we’d ask students to be as vigilant about washing their hands and wearing facemasks off-campus and at home as they are on campus.”
Provost Anderson explained that the school has trained 20 employees to help with contact tracing. Every student who tests positive or comes in contact with someone who did is added to a long spreadsheet that keeps track of when their quarantine period will end.
In one case, three positive cases surfaced in the same classroom, but the students didn’t sit anywhere close to each other. Provost Anderson said that instance was “pretty good evidence that they’re not spreading (COVID-19) in the classroom to each other.”
SUU canceled a slew of planned in-person events and moved others to a virtual format to accommodate Herbert’s order.
“In a lot of ways, I believe having social activities on campus are safer than not having them,” President Wyatt said. “Because when we sponsor them, we help make sure that people are wearing masks and doing all the right things. If we don’t do them, students will have their own activities, which are off-campus and tend to be less safe.”
The university updated the COVID-19 Case Counts page to reflect the difference between on-campus cases among remote students or concurrent enrollment students off-campus on Nov. 5. The page originally tracked cases in a lump sum, whether they be a remote student in Japan or a face-to-face faculty member, but the school felt it was important to distinguish between the two, President Wyatt said.
Several cases were redistributed to different weeks to reflect when the patient received a positive test instead of when they filled out the COVID-19 self-reporting form. Clarifying this information was important, President Wyatt said, because many people didn’t understand that they were supposed to inform the university of a positive test.
“We’ve had people who feel bad on Friday, get tested the next Tuesday or Wednesday, find out the following Friday, and then notify us the next Tuesday,” Provost Anderson said. “By then, there are only three days left in their cycle of quarantine. They could have potentially infected a lot of people. The challenge has been getting accurate information as quickly as possible.”
SUU announced that students would not be required to attend in-person classes during the fall semester. The university plans to continue that policy in the spring and into the future until there’s a better handle on the spread of the pandemic, Provost Anderson said.
According to Provost Anderson, enrollment for the Spring 2021 Semester is up compared to spring 2020, which points to success for SUU, as many of the freshmen who started during the pandemic in the fall semester have registered to return for the spring.
UDOH announced Wednesday its plan to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine to health care workers as soon as December, but the average Utahn may have to wait until summer, according to state health officials.
The distribution of the vaccine could significantly impact how the spring semester is handled, but as of now, all signs point to a rerun of the fall semester. About 60% of classes will be face-to-face, there will still be a variety of hybrid and online courses offered, and the university will continue to not enforce attendance requirements.
The school did not consider beginning the spring semester online to allow for a quarantine period as some other schools in the country are doing, President Wyatt said, because the school is optimistic that testing will be available when students return to campus.
The introduction of a vaccine and increased testing at universities does not mean the pandemic has ended, and the school wants to remind students to continue to be diligent in wearing masks and reporting positive cases to slow the spread of COVID-19 on campus.
“I want the students to know that we are in a pandemic that hasn’t lessened up,” Provost Anderson said. “It’s actually gotten worse. The models say we’ll probably peak around February and then start to decline, so we’re in an uphill battle through the holidays. We can’t act on information we don’t have.”
Provost Anderson and President Wyatt both expressed that working through the pandemic has been a challenge. President Wyatt lost a close personal acquaintance to COVID-19 earlier this year, and Provost Anderson said he’s lost friends in his home state of Georgia to the disease.
President Wyatt said he’s heard from many people on campus who are struggling with mental health issues as a result of the pandemic.
“It’s been enormously disruptive. I know because I see it. A lot of anxieties. A lot of worries. You’ve got people on one hand who say this is a scam. On the other hand, you have people who are very, very worried about it…” President Wyatt said. “What’s interesting to me is trying to find the right level of isolation to promote physical health, but not too much to destroy mental health.”
President Wyatt said he’s trying to look for the positive whenever he can and considering his role as an educational leader more as the pandemic wears on. He said that his previous experience as a criminal prosecutor prepared him for the level of stress he’s encountering now.
“The benefit of growing old is that you collect a library of memories of very challenging experiences,” President Wyatt said. “Then we rely on those kinds of things to say, ‘Ah, yeah, we’ll be alright.’”
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me that this has almost broken them,” President Wyatt added. “I’ve had a lot of other people tell me that this pandemic has brought them together… One of my jobs is to try to help people figure out how this pandemic can make them a stronger person, and to look for those opportunities.”
Story and photos by: Connor Sanders