University of Virginia students living in residence halls will be tested for COVID-19 at least every nine days and those living off-Grounds will be given kits to test themselves, university officials announced on Tuesday.
The increase in testing was announced at the same time UVa officials relaxed social gathering restrictions, allowing students to gather in groups of up to 10 as opposed to groups of five.
Requirements that students wear masks, limit visitors and unnecessary travel remain in effect, as do recommendations for public health measures such as physical distancing and hand washing.
The restrictions were put in place late last month after the number of positive tests among students rose.
“When first announced, these enhanced restrictions were a necessary response to worrying trends in the university’s viral metrics,” said Allen W. Groves, UVa Dean of Students, in a Tuesday letter to students. “Today our metrics are much better, and we are confident that members of this community can gather in slightly larger numbers without risking the health of each other or our community.”
According to information released by UVa on its COVID Tracker dashboard, COVID cases at the university have dropped significantly from an average of 22 diagnosed per day three weeks ago to three per day last week.
There were 95 active cases of COVID reported at UVa last week, 74 of which were students.
Two weeks ago about 7.8% of students tested proved positive. Last week about 2% of UVa students tested were positive for the virus.
The positive rate for tests in the Greater Charlottesville area covered by the Thomas Jefferson Health District as of last week was 3.2%, according to district statistics.
“It is true that an increase in testing will likely yield an increase in the number of positive cases on the UVa COVID Tracker,” Groves wrote. “I want to assure you that university leaders and public health experts are monitoring these metrics closely and any future policy decisions will be informed by the totality of the situation regarding the virus and our capacity to respond to it.”
According to UVa officials, occupants of each residence hall will be tested as a group. Larger residence halls will have students tested over several days.
Tests will be based on either a nasal swab or a saliva sample and students will receive an email with information about their testing appointment, including the time, day, location and testing method, officials said.
Students living off-Grounds will receive test kits from UVa contracts. Those tests will be supplemented by saliva tests performed by the university.
The testing, administrators said, is mandatory. Students with “unavoidable conflicts,” such as classes or being isolated or quarantined for exposure to COVID-19 may reschedule. Students who tested positive for the virus will need to wait 90 days from the past positive test.
Results should be available in one to two days and those who test positive will move into isolation housing on Grounds. The Virginia Department of Health will conduct contact tracing for any positive cases.
“We have heard from many of you about the strain these new restrictions have added to an already challenging semester,” Groves wrote to students. “I hope this change will make it a little easier to make the most of the remainder of this academic term.”
Groves said that restrictions could be re-imposed if the virus gains a foothold and positive tests increase.
“Our behavior can impact the trajectory of this virus for better or worse,” Groves wrote. “Finishing this semester strong will require everyone to consistently follow current policy and advice to limit gathering size, visitors and unnecessary travel, wear masks, and maintain physical distancing.”
On Sept. 22, UVa President Jim Ryan implemented restrictions that limited the number of students who could gather from 15 to five. All students were to wear face coverings unless at home, eating or exercising outdoors. The university also ordered students to not leave Charlottesville unless necessary and to not have visitors from out of town.
It also began testing students living off-Grounds for COVID and targeted residence halls for testing based on the test results and wastewater tests for the virus’ ribonucleic acid, a building block of the virus.
Those efforts will continue, officials said. The increase in testing is designed to stymie the virus before it can spread enough to create an outbreak. The virus is easily transmitted in living quarters with people in close proximity.
“People can be infected with COVID before they feel ill or begin to show symptoms,” UVa administrators wrote in a letter to students on Tuesday. The letter was signed by several of the school’s top administrators, including Provost Liz Magill.
“Transmission can occur unnoticed and can spread when people live together,” the administrators wrote. “Regular testing will help identify asymptomatic students in residence halls before the virus has a chance to spread widely.”