Coronavirus testing: What you should know for spring semester

In a town hall webinar on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, campus leaders shared information about the coronavirus testing plan for spring semester, including who will be. tested, how often, testing locations, why testing matters, resources for students and faculty and the status of the vaccine roll out.

Presenters included President Ruth Watkins; Lori McDonald, vice president for student affairs; Dan Reed, senior vice president for academic affairs, Steven Lacey, professor and chief of the Division of Public Health, senior advisor to the president for the coronavirus task force; and Dr. Thomas Miller, chief medical officer and professor of internal medicine at University of Utah Hospital.

The webinar and a transcript are below.

Coronavirus testing: What you should know for spring semester

Chris Nelson | Communications Director

Good afternoon. My name is Chris Nelson. I’m the communications director for the University of Utah. And I want to welcome you to our first town hall meeting of the spring semester. Today we’re joined by a variety of experts, including Lori McDonald, the vice president for student affairs; Steven Lacey, the chair of the Division of Public Health at the University of Utah School of Medicine; Dan Reed, the senior vice president for academic affairs; and Dr. Tom Miller, the chief medical officer at University of Utah Health for our hospitals and clinics. And we’ll go through our spring testing plan, answer some questions that have been submitted. But before we do that, I want to introduce President Ruth Watkins and give her a few moments.

Ruth Watkins | President

Thank you so much, Chris. And thank you all for taking the time to join this conversation today. I want to extend my welcome to the spring 2021 semester. And most of all, let you know, you have my warmest appreciation for everything you have done to help us continue to keep the important work of the University of Utah happening through the pandemic. Your actions have made an enormous difference. Your actions of participating in testing, of following health guidelines, such as physical distancing, wearing a face covering, and, of course, frequent hand-washing.

And as I understand things, the experts today will tell you more, but it’s pretty important that we keep that behavior up as the spring semester continues. So, thanks in advance for what you’re doing. I want to also express great appreciation for the many people around the campus who have worked hard to enable us to do much, much more testing this spring semester. You’re going to hear a lot about that today. Testing is one critical tool in the toolkit, and we know it will help us as we continue through the semester. Now my great hope is that semester of 2021 spring is this semester we begin to see this pandemic recede. With your help, we’ll make that happen.

On a personal note, I have been so privileged to be a part of this campus community with you. And I’m so happy that I’m going to be here through the spring, most of the spring at any rate so that I can have a chance to tell you that more personally and in the future. So thank you, everyone. Thanks for taking part today. Chris, back to you.

Chris Nelson | Communications Director

Thank you, president. All right, Dr. McDonald, let’s get to it. Today’s audience is both students, but also faculty and staff. But let’s start with the student testing plan. I know a lot of work has gone into it over the winter break and kind of some exciting news and a lot of resources coming to bear. So I’ll turn it over to you to kind of give the breakdown of how it will work.

Lori McDonald | Vice President for Student Affairs

Thank you so much. I am very excited to talk about a lot of developments. We have been learning a great deal throughout this entire pandemic, and we benefit so much from research, from our academic medical center, from all of the experts who are putting in so much time and effort to help our campus community maintain our health and get through this as best as possible. And I’m excited to talk about the mechanics of the testing. I know Dr. Lacey is going to talk about the importance of participating in this. And so I’m just going to let you know the operations of it. All that I’m going to be covering is available at alert.utah.edu/covid-19-testing. That’s the alert testing page that we’ll continue to have updates and details. So, this will all be included there.

Chris Nelson | Communications Director

Dr. McDonald, it is also available at coronavirus.utah.edu, if that’s a little bit easier.

Lori McDonald | Vice President for Student Affairs

Good. I was getting to that next. The coronavirus.utah.edu site continues to have additional information even more than just testing. And there is a link to this alert page from there. So, yes, thank you.

As a reminder, symptomatic testing and testing for those who have been confirmed to have been in close contact with a positive case continue. And that for all students, faculty and staff, in order to schedule a test for those situations, we ask that you call the University of Utah Health and Testing hotline at 801-587-0712 to schedule a test at an appropriate testing location. And they can assist with answering a number of questions about symptomatic questions and contacts. So we also ask, and we are continuing to ask our campus community members to complete a self-report form in those situations at the coronavirus.utah.edu website, this will help us start some support resources for the individuals involved and also initiate some protective protocols for spaces on campus and things like that.

So those continue the same as they were in the fall. New to spring semester is asymptomatic testing at no cost for our students, faculty and staff who are coming to campus. This testing will be done at two different locations on campus, the Officers Club in Fort Douglas and the Saltair room in the Union building. Tests do need to be scheduled with an appointment. And with a great deal of appreciation for our research CORE labs, we’re using a PCR saliva test. Results will be emailed to your UMail accounts within approximately 24 to 36 hours. So those are the locations.

Now there certain populations of our students that I want to talk about. For our students who are living in housing and residential education facilities, we are requiring weekly testing. Our HRE students have already begun moving in as of today. And so as of today, we have started this weekly testing. They have a dedicated link on that alert testing page to schedule those appointments. And there’s also a frequently asked questions page for our students who live in housing residential education.

So for students who are not living in housing and residential education, for those who are registered for some type of in-person class component, an in-person class or a hybrid class that does have them on campus for some periods of time, we are expecting all of our students to participate in weekly testing. Every Thursday, they will be notified via their @utah.edu (their UMail address). That account will have information about how they can schedule a test for the following week.

We really strongly urge our students to participate in this regularly. And along with that information, there will be further details and some frequently asked questions; we can get some answers to them. But again, those are taking place in the Union building or the Officers Club and they do need to be scheduled by an appointment.

We also have testing available for students who are all online, who are here in the area, who are concerned about a test, but may not be meeting the criteria for symptomatic or having been in direct contact. Those can also be scheduled at that webpage. These students will not be sent a weekly invitation to set an appointment, but they can do so on their own through that alert testing page.

With a similar approach to our students who are coming to campus for classes this spring, we’re also offering available optional testing for our current faculty and staff, including healthcare employees, who may not have been identified as in close contact by a contact tracing team, but still have concerns. Those appointments can also be scheduled at the testing site.

And for all of our campus community, we offer a number of support resources for our students, especially those who are positive or have been in contact and need to quarantine and isolate. Our contact tracing team has a number of support resources, both on campus and in the campus community. Our Center for Student Wellness has a list of a number of resources and events that are going on throughout the semester at wellness.utah.edu. And we really want students to reach out if they have any questions or concerns. We want you to be successful while going to class but also participate in all the public health strategies that help our campus community be safe. And we’re here for you.

Chris Nelson | Communications Director

Excellent. Lots of good information. If in doubt again, coronavirus.utah.edu. And Dr. McDonald also a special thanks to our research and laboratories on campus who are participating and making this greatly enhanced bit of testing available from last semester.

Lori McDonald | Vice President for Student Affairs

Absolutely.

Chris Nelson | Communications Director

All right, Dr. Lacey. So we’ve heard a lot about what we’re offering for tests, but that’s not the solution, that’s just part of the solution. Why is the testing important and what are the other things we’re still encouraging students, faculty and staff to do this semester?

Steven Lacey | Chief of the Division of Public Health

Yeah, thank you. I want to talk about the rationale. Also, as we kind of close out the mechanics that Dr. McDonald was talking about, the CORE labs have been incredible. But also Richard Orlandi and Cameron Wright along with many other people. But Richard and Cameron have been outstanding in working out the mechanics of this. And it’s been a real team effort to hammer out the details. So I’m really grateful for their work.

About the rationale on this. Testing helps us understand the extent of infection in the community at any given point in time. And also the rate at which infection is spreading from one point in time, say from week to week. So knowing how many infections there are and how fast that infection is spreading to others helps inform strategies to contain the virus and helps us plan to take care of the people that become sick from the virus.

Also and equally important, by identifying those individuals that are infected, we can help prevent them from infecting other people by having them stay home. So remember from earlier conversations we isolate sick people from those who are not sick. And we quarantine people who have been exposed to see if they do become sick. And what’s interesting about the role of the U within our broader community, the university is physically at the heart of our city. And the people that work and study here make up a big part of our larger community population-wise.

But the thing is the U is not a fortress surrounded by high walls. It’s porous and people come and go. Within an hour a student or a professor may go from campus to the grocery store and then back to their neighborhood. So they’re really part of different communities. For one moment they’re part of the U, for next moment they’re a shopper. And then the next moment they’re a neighbor, perhaps to those that are most vulnerable. So this testing plan is going to help us prevent and protect our larger community as being such a central piece to our larger community.

Chris Nelson | Communications Director

Excellent. And everything else stays the same the whole semester: wearing masks, physical distancing, creating your social bubble and staying with it, correct?

Steven Lacey | Chief of the Division of Public Health

Yeah, absolutely. All of those elements stay in place and perhaps they’re more important than ever. Across the country there is uncontrolled community spread, right? We’ve seen this, we see this in the regular updates, and we have to keep doing the things that we know work. You’re going to hear this three more times probably before the end of this conversation: masking up and keeping a distance from others. Sometimes we kind of conflate those things, think that if we have a mask on we can get right up to someone in line in the grocery store. But masking and physical distancing and hand washing and perhaps most importantly staying home when you can, those things have to continue to make this work.

Chris Nelson | Communications Director

Yeah. I wanted to give you a chance to talk about some really special unsung heroes that report up through the Division of Public Health that the U oversees, the campus contact tracers, who I think have probably the busiest and maybe one of the hardest jobs. Can you talk about why it’s important when people get contacted by this group to respond and just some of the work they’re doing?

Steven Lacey | Chief of the Division of Public Health

Absolutely. I’d love to talk about the importance and to brag on this team for just a second. Contact tracing is led by two professors from the Division of Public Health: Sharon Talboys and Kim Shoaf. They’ve trained literally hundreds of contact tracers to do this work across the state. And then they’ve created a specific team dedicated to our campus. And all of them are acting as an extension of the Utah Department of Health. So when an individual self-reports or they test positive in this testing strategy that we’ve been talking about, that initiates a set of phone calls to determine who they’ve been in contact with. So let’s say if I test positive for COVID today, someone from Dr. Talboys’ team would call me, and they’d ask about all the people I’ve come in contact with around my time of likely exposure.

So if I got called today, I would say I’ve seen my neighbors, but I’ve seen them from across the yard. And I passed someone on a trail on Sunday, but we both gave each other a lot of room. So I saw someone but I wasn’t within distance of them. And then that contact tracer will determine if anyone else needs to be called or if the conversation stops there. Usually, there are more phone calls to make. And then when they make those calls, they might be giving additional advice to those individuals like staying at home for the next several days.

So to that end, it’s really helpful to keep mental tabs on where you’ve been and the people you’ve encountered. Again, for me it would be I saw my neighbors and I passed someone on the trail. Having that sense of who you’ve been around is going to be really helpful to this effort. And I know robocalls are annoying, but please answer your phone. A contact tracing call will look a lot like a call from campus. It has the same couple of prefixes that our campus uses. So keep an eye out for those calls, check your messages and they also may text you. Our contact tracing team is doing amazing behind-the-scenes work, right? They’re literally saving lives with phone calls, and we need the entire community to help them out by picking up the phone. It doesn’t work if people don’t pick up the phone.

Chris Nelson | Communications Director

Excellent. Yeah. And kudos to that team. And again, the great news this semester that we’re announcing today is, if in doubt, we’re offering asymptomatic testing. It’s available and a resource that’s kind of an advantage of being part of the University of Utah community. Dr. Reed, we know we’ve got faculty who have questions who will be returning to the classroom and teaching online. What are some of the big issues that you’re hearing from faculty and what’s the message to that audience?

Dan Reed | Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs

Well, first of all, I think the message to our entire community is a huge thank you. Thank you for your diligence and compliance with all of the guidelines that Steven just enumerated on face coverings and social distancing and washing your hands and trying to work at home if you can. So just a huge thank you to everyone who helped make the fall semester a success.

It’s important that we continue to do those things for the spring and maintain diligence. But I want to also echo just a broader thank you and remind folks what Steven just described, what Lori just described, are really part of what a great public university can do in a one U spirit. The fact that it’s our research enterprise that’s supporting testing, and that we have a Department of Public Health that has this expertise, it’s really about a one U partnership.

And it takes all of us to make these things happen. As we think about the spring semester for faculty, remember that overall somewhere between 40-50% of our classes have at least some in-person component. There are a bunch of classes that are entirely online, but laboratory, experiential education, the classes that meet in a hybrid mode, there are many faculty and students who are on campus maybe one day a week. And so everything that Vice President McDonald described about testing is really important.

I’m really excited that for faculty, testing is now available as they feel the need. So if you’re concerned, it is available. It’s a way to provide some reassurance and to short circuit exactly what Dr. Lacey was talking about in terms of knowing early if you might be infected. So please take advantage of that. And we are already planning for the fall, dare say, we see hope on the horizon with vaccines. But in the meantime, it really is important to be diligent and maintain those practices. We will, with respect to the fall, take stock in the spring about how we adjust some of our parameters for fall instruction, we just need a little more data. So please be patient and diligent as we continue to watch the spread of the virus, and the rollout of vaccines, and the testing availability.

And those of you who are teaching, just a quick reminder that Teaching and Learning and Technologies and the Center for Learning are both available. If you have pedagogical needs, they’re happy to help in any way, whether it be supporting student accessibility, which is an important issue as we think about often the Zoom-based electronic delivery for so many reasons, but those resources are available.

My overwhelming message is one of incredible gratitude for what you’ve done. Stay the course, the end is in sight, but it’s not here yet. We will get through this together, that’s what partnerships are all about. So thank you, and let’s look forward to a spring that is as successful and even more successful than the fall.

Chris Nelson | Communications Director

Thanks, Dr. Reed. And specific questions from faculty, you can go to coronavirus.utah.edu. If the information is not there, there’s a hotline to call, a central point for information. All right, so a lot of questions we’ve had about vaccines. “When is it going to roll out to the community? How is it going on the health care side of things at the university?”

And so Dr. Miller, thanks for joining us. Can you give us an update on vaccine rollout, maybe start with how it’s working on the health care system and then as a practicing physician and administrator, what do you expect to see for vaccine rollout to the rest of the community, including the campus community at the end of the road?

Dr. Thomas Miller | Chief Medical Officer

So thank you, Chris, and thanks to all our campus participants. I’d like to echo what Dr. Lacey was saying that currently, our symptomatic testing rates of positivity are very high in the state, around 30%. And given that the vaccine rollout is slow based on a slow supply from the federal warehouses where the vaccine is stored, we can expect the trickling in of vaccine over the next 30 to 60 days, but then larger amounts after that.

So to Dr. Lacey’s points and some of the other recommendations that have been made, please, please, please, wear your protective equipment when you’re in areas that require it. So as you’re in classrooms if you’re outside and then especially if you’re with family and friends. I call this the tribal effect. We feel safe when we’re with our families when we’re with our friends and our close friends. We don’t quite feel that way when we’re out in grocery stores and other places, but the areas where the virus is passed is when we take those masks off and spend a little while together with friends and family, as you see sometimes over Christmas among families and it’s normal, it’s natural, we expect that.

I’m making a plea for all of us to get to the finish line. We’re at that mile 20 of the marathon, and we’ve got a few more miles to go, let’s hang in there, let’s wear those masks. Wear the mask, they do work, they do work, keep them over the nose and the mouth. This is a pain I understand, and when we get through this, we can all throw them away in a big, big party, but it’s going to be a few months.

Regarding vaccine, as some of you have seen, the CDC recommendation of distribution was to begin with health care workers. And the university started vaccinating health care workers with their first dose of the vaccine around Dec. 15, and we vaccinated about 14,000 of our 19,000 employees. We expect about a 30-80% uptake. Remember that the use of the vaccine is not mandatory because it’s under emergency use authorization, meaning that it hasn’t met the highest standards of approval, so it will get there.

The vaccine comes in two doses, and there are two of them on the market right now, Moderna and the Pfizer vaccine, which the federal government has bought up in very large quantities, and it’s being produced as we speak and then shipped out. The two doses of both of these vaccines are 95% effective. The second dose is taken 21 days after the first dose for the Pfizer, and then 28 days after the dose of the Moderna.

So that’s where we are with university health care staff and what the governor has done, and he executed an order on Monday evening, and all of the vaccine that’s coming into the state — and let me tell you, there are only about 33,000 doses that will be coming in per week. So if you look at our entire Utah population, that’s a trickle. So we’ve got to just hang in there.

Now, remember we’ve been in this battle for 12 months already. We will get through it, we will get the vaccine, but it’s going to take a little while. And as I said before, I’m very hopeful in the next 30 to 60 days, there’ll be more and more vaccine available. What the governor stated is that this week, the week we’re in right now, he’s vaccinating K–12 teachers. The state is having contractors go out to the schools and vaccinate the teachers. There are about 100,000 teachers, so that’s going to take a little while. Starting next week, they will continue with essential workers and the teachers and those 70 years and older, and the shots will be delivered through the county health departments.

The executive order did not include preschool personnel, nor did it include college professors or staff, that will be coming. And that’s a concern to everybody, but that’s where the executive order is right now. There are about 410,000, as stated in the executive order, in the population that comprises the 70 years and older and the essential workers. So at our current rate for the foreseeable future, it’s going to be hurry up and wait.

What I mean by that is vaccine will be distributed to the local health departments and then some of the contractors, and then it will go out very quickly, because there are about 25 local health departments throughout the state that will receive the vaccine. Obviously, the biggest population is here in Salt Lake County. There are several county health departments that will be administrating what vaccine they receive and then they’re done, and they have to wait for the next shipment, and the next shipment, and the next shipment. We expect by the end of the month that the two newest vaccines, these are the adenovirus vector vaccines from Janssen and then AstraZeneca, will receive FDA approval and then be open to the market and then shipped. And so, that’ll increase our supply, so look for that. The efficacy of those vaccines has not been determined yet; we’ll hear about that later.

So in conclusion, I’m saying we will get the vaccine, but we’re going to have to hold fast right now. And that’s why I fall back on Dr. Lacey’s discussion about the complete importance of wearing your protective gear now, especially when around your friends, in the dorms, in the classrooms and with family. Let’s get across the finish line, we can all do this. We will get vaccinated; there are vaccines coming. We’re going to have to wait, grit our teeth, run to that 26-mile mark, and we’ll all be vaccinated.

Chris Nelson | Communications Director

Dr. Miller, one of the questions we received that I want to bring up with you and Dr. Lacey is that even for someone who might have been vaccinated early on is it still important that that person is masking, taking precautions?

Dr. Thomas Miller | Chief Medical Officer

Chris, that is a very good question. So there is a sense, “Let’s party after you get that first vaccine.” So right now, we have the Moderna and the Pfizer, those are two-shot vaccines. After you get that first vaccine, your immune system takes a week to two weeks to maximally respond to the vaccine. In the first dose, at the end of two weeks or three weeks, when you’re ready for the second dose, you are only about 50% protected. So goes to the point, you get that first shot within the first week, you’re not protected. In the second week, you can start to assume that you have some protection, but it’s not until at least a week after that second dose that you reach that maximal efficacy of the vaccine, which is 95%. So the point is, wear masks, don’t think you can take them off.

Now, the next thing is, all right, let’s say you get both doses of the vaccine and then hopefully the Janssen vaccine, which is a one-dose vaccine, so that’s going to be great. It’s easy to distribute, so hopefully, we’ll get a lot of that. But even though we reached that period of time where we know we have maximal efficacy from the vaccine, we have to do our part in continuing to wear masks until everybody else is vaccinated.

Why? Because it sends mixed messages. And if you’re not wearing a mask, others are saying, “Well, I don’t think I need to wear one either,” whether they’ve been vaccinated or not. Then you get a lot of people opting in and out, and that’s what the virus loves. I’m not trying to humanize something that’s just a few RNA particles, but it doesn’t care. So we need to wear our protective gear beyond the time even that the vaccines are maximally efficacious until we have a large enough percentage of the population. We’ll know when the state epidemiologists tell us, “Look, it’s okay, we’re done.” That’s probably not going to be till June or July, okay?

Steven Lacey | Chief of the Division of Public Health

And Dr. Miller, if I may, it’s even more complicated than that, as well, right? So even after you get vaccinated and especially during this time period when very few people are vaccinated, we have to keep these defensive practices up, because right now we don’t know if a vaccinated person can still infect another person. There is still some question around that.

Dr. Thomas Miller | Chief Medical Officer

There is.

Steven Lacey | Chief of the Division of Public Health

So it may be the case that while someone receives the vaccine won’t get sick, that person, with what you just described, they won’t get sick. But we don’t really understand about their ability, someone that’s been vaccinated, their role in still spreading disease because asymptomatic individuals right now are the driving force.

Dr. Thomas Miller | Chief Medical Officer

That’s true. Again, the whole point is, even though we will be protected to a very high degree after the second vaccine and perhaps the first vaccine if it’s the adenovirus vaccine, we have to do our part to continue our duty to protect others. And that also is simply messaging, messaging by wearing a mask, displaying the fact that we’re all in, more than anything. Wearing that mask is a badge that, “I care about other people, I care about those who aren’t vaccinated, I care about preventing the spread of this disease.” And that’s tougher because once you think you’re iron-clad, your tendency naturally is like, “I don’t need this mask.” Let’s do it for other people.

We’ve been kind of talking about this throughout the pandemic, is wearing the mask, if not for yourself, it’s to protect others. It’s to protect the vulnerable. It’s to protect those who we know are at high risk. It’s to protect our grandparents and our parents, and those who we know that they’ll have much higher rates of hospitalization, and morbidity, and then death, if we’re not careful with them. So for all those reasons.

And then finally, I would say the studies that have been done to date, one of them was on a large U.S. aircraft carrier, 40% of young folks who get this don’t have any symptoms. And I can tell you over the last week, my patients coming down with this don’t have very many symptoms. We’ve had some people in the office that have had this and they have very few symptoms. And so you don’t know when you have it, sometimes. You don’t know. Somebody will say, “I just lost my sense of taste and smell. That was the only thing.”

And then you knew that they had it. Others, nothing at all, but they were positive. So again, to your point, Dr. Lacey and others, please keep wearing the mask. And we’ll get through it. People will get vaccinated. You will be safe after you get your vaccines, but let’s protect others. And let’s continue to message to the population at the whole that this is really important.

Chris Nelson | Communications Director

And so Dr. Miller, bottom line right now, patience is key. And the question I think we’ve gotten is, “Will the university as an entity play some role in mass vaccinations?” And I think right now that the current plan is no, but perhaps more to come on that.

Dr. Thomas Miller | Chief Medical Officer

Yes. So we stand ready to assist the state and the governor in deploying vaccines. We have within our health care system 81,000 individuals active in the last two years who are 75 and older, and 115,000 between 65 and 74 years old.

And we know how to deliver this Pfizer vaccine. We have minus 80 freezers. This is a very fickle vaccine. It’s fragile. And it doesn’t last beyond five hours once it’s reconstituted. So we know how to do this. We stand ready. We’re going to set up some other sites and be ready when the state asks us, when they have more vaccine, to begin to vaccinate others who are using our health care system to be vaccinated. And we can do that. I mean, we have a great IT system, and we get the uploads to the state very directly and very quickly. So we’re ready to help when they need our help. And we’ve had ongoing conversations with Salt Lake County, and then hopefully, eventually we can help vaccinate the campus as well. But time will tell.

Chris Nelson | Communications Director

Last question and I’m not sure we actually have an answer to this question. I know we’ll have a very small percentage of students over the semester who probably get vaccinated for whatever reason. Maybe they’re working up in the health care system, and I don’t know if this is Dr. Miller, or Dr. McDonald, or Dr. Lacey, do we have advice? Will those students once they’re vaccinated be encouraged to be tested weekly? Or is that something we’re still looking at? I don’t think we need to answer that now, but I just wanted to put that out there.

Dr. Thomas Miller | Chief Medical Officer

There’s one thing I’d just throw on that that’s a little bit separate. In the governor’s executive order, he asked those who have had COVID to delay receiving the vaccine for 90 days after the infection. OK? In terms of testing, I don’t know that you need to make such a granular distinction. It’s too hard to … just do what you’re going to do. I’ll tell you our experience here is, make it as simple as you can. Once you start breaking things down into that kind of granularity, then it gets complicated and spins out of control pretty quickly.

Chris Nelson | Communications Director

Yeah. And again, for members of the campus community watching this, if you’ve got those kinds of questions, contact us the coronavirus.utah.edu. I think some of these will require probably some one-on-one follow-up. So with that, I want to thank everybody for participating. We try to keep these just under an hour. I thank everybody, and again, I just emphasize go to coronavirus.utah.edu and as we get into the spring semester, I suspect we’ll be having some more town hall meetings. I look forward to seeing you all again. Thank you very much.