Positive cases of COVID-19 will be part of the “new normal” at the University of Virginia as students return to Grounds for the new school year, and a successful return doesn’t mean completely eliminating the risk of infections, officials wrote in a letter to the university community Thursday.
“It means instead that each and every one of us acts to prevent the spread of the virus by following simple but powerful public health measures,” officials wrote. “It also means that we each stand ready to self-isolate or quarantine and assist with contact tracing in the event of positive cases. These proven methods will prevent further spread of the virus. If we each do our part, we can live, learn and work in this new normal while keeping ourselves and the people around us safe.”
The letter was signed by UVa Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis and Provost Liz Magill.
Despite outbreaks at the several universities, UVa is moving forward with its plan to bring students back to the area in early September after delaying the start of in-person classes for undergraduates by two weeks. Students in graduate and professional programs have begun to return as in-person classes for them start this month. On Sunday, the university reported that a law student tested positive.
“A positive test in the law school before the beginning of classes illuminated another reality of that new normal — that cases of COVID-19 will occur,” Magill and Davis wrote, adding that the student is doing well and isolated, per public health guidelines.
In the last week, several universities have stopped in-person classes following outbreaks on campus. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill reported 135 new cases after one week of in-person classes, prompting officials there to switch courses to online.
At the University of Notre Dame, in-person classes were suspended for two weeks after 222 confirmed cases. Like UVa, Notre Dame required students to submit a negative test before returning to campus. Of the nearly 12,000 tests administered to students, 99.7% came back negative, according to a Notre Dame news release.
UVa also has strongly recommended that students quarantine for 14 days before coming back. Undergraduates can move into university housing starting Sept. 3.
“We recognize that the news from around the country, including at other universities, continues to create anxiety and uncertainty about the future,” Magill and Davis wrote.
UVa spokesman Brian Coy said earlier this week that university officials remain optimistic that the current plan will support a safe return to Grounds.
University officials previously have said they are monitoring several factors as they gauge whether to continue with their reopening plan, but they have not released specific metrics regarding those factors. If they decide to change plans, that will be communicated no later than Aug. 28.
In Thursday’s letter, Magill and Davis said they are preparing new public information tools to track key metrics related to the virus.
“As we move deeper into the fall semester and more students, faculty and staff return to Grounds, our goal is to keep you informed about the prevalence of the virus in our area and the steps we can take together to limit its spread,” they wrote.
In addition to daily health checks and other preventive measures, a key part of the university’s plan to bring students back is mandatory testing for those intended to return to the Charlottesville area. Students are required to submit a negative test before they can return to Grounds.
Once the school year begins, ongoing testing will be used to detect outbreaks and contain the virus.
For this plan, UVa is planning to spend as much as $3.2 million to purchase 27,000 coronavirus tests to use before and during the school year. In July, the university contracted with the New York-based Let’s Get Checked to provide free tests for all students. Each test costs $119, according to the contract, obtained via an open-records request, and UVa pays as tests are ordered.
Coy said Thursday that the Let’s Get Checked supplies will be used to test students going forward. If the current plan holds, UVa students, staff, faculty and contract employees without symptoms can be tested every 60 days and any students with symptoms will be tested. Additionally, those who are exposed to the virus will be tested even if they don’t show symptoms.
Currently, the university does not have plans for widespread surveillance testing, but officials are planning to test the wastewater from residence halls and other buildings to check for potential outbreaks and monitoring reports from the Hoos HealthCheck app. The university also is finalizing arrangements for asymptomatic testing for employees.
“As the pandemic and the testing technology evolve, we will continuously adapt our strategy to keep our community safe,” Coy said.
Initially, UVa ordered 20,000 tests in July. A second order, signed Monday, requested an additional 7,000. The one-year contract was signed by Davis. An interview request to Davis about the contract was returned by Coy.
He said the second purchase of tests was made out of an abundance of caution to ensure UVa has an adequate reserve supply of tests as it readies for the academic year.
“It does not reflect any current or anticipated shortage at the university, but we do want to be prepared in case such a shortage occurs,” Coy said.
Both orders are an estimate, and UVa doesn’t have to buy all 27,000 tests, though the company manufactures the kits in chunks of 3,240. For the initial mandatory testing requirement, students are to request the kits themselves through the company.
As part of the contract, Let’s Get Checked will process all of the tests. The university has told students to take the test seven days before they are supposed to return to Grounds and expect results within 48 hours of the lab receiving the sample. They should send their sample between Aug. 20 and Aug. 25, according to a university announcement.
Unused test kits cannot be returned.