Officials at Susquehanna University are proactively searching for any hint of the COVID-19 virus on campus, investing $500,000 on an early-warning wastewater testing system.

In doing so, they are joining colleges across the nation — from Tennessee to New Mexico, from New York to Michigan — that are now using water testing as an early indicator of a coronavirus outbreak on campus.

The tests work by detecting genetic material from the virus which can turn up in the stools of about half of the people who have COVID-19, the Associated Press reported this week. The sewage testing can be especially valuable because it can detect a few cases among thousands of people, pointing to the presence of the virus even if people are not exhibiting symptoms. The concept also has been used to watch for outbreaks of the polio virus.

The University of Arizona issued a quarantine of about 300 students after a wastewater test turned up two cases. Both students had no symptoms of the illness, but they could have spread it to many other people.

“That’s just tremendously valuable information when we think about the setting of a college dorm, and how quickly this disease can spread through that population,” said Peter Grevatt, CEO of The Water Research Foundation, which promotes studies of water and wastewater to ensure water quality and service.

At Susquehanna University, wastewater from campus buildings is being tested every two days. The testing has been in place for a few weeks, and so far, no positive tests have been detected.

The university is also conducting quarantine drills with students in the event the coronavirus is found on campus. If a positive wastewater test was detected in any of the campus buildings, as many as 150 students would need to be quarantined immediately. The drills will help make the process go as smoothly as possible if they become necessary, Susan Lantz, Susquehanna’s vice president for Student Life told us.

“Sometimes you don’t know how it’s going to go until you do it, so we’ve done two drills so far,” she said. “We hope it will make students feel safe and calm” to know the process beforehand.

If a positive COVID test is detected, text alerts will be sent out to campus residents, instructing them to isolate themselves. The next day, individual testing will begin and could take as long as seven hours to complete. Athletic trainers have received instruction on conducting the tests and a COVID-19 hotline has been set up for parents.

Nearly 1,800 students have opted to return to campus this fall. The strategic, proactive approaches taken by Susquehanna University represent a multi-faceted investment in their students. Aside from the obvious health and safety benefits, it should help these young adults worry a little less about COVID-19 so they spend more time focusing on their studies and enjoying their experiences on campus.

NOTE: Opinions expressed in The Daily Item’s editorials are the consensus of the publisher, top newsroom executives and community members of the editorial board. Today’s was written by Digital Editor Dave Hilliard.



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