You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Not so long ago, no one had heard of the 2019 novel coronavirus. Until mid-February, neither the virus nor the disease it causes even had an official name. Now, we are all painfully familiar with SARS-CoV-2 and the respiratory disease, COVID-19.

The virus has upended lives and ended many. To slow its spread, we have had to radically adjust our economy and society, including higher education -- a critical engine that drives both.

Higher education institutions like the University of California, San Diego, adapted our campuses weeks ago to quickly and efficiently implement remote education so the vast majority of students could continue their studies while taking shelter during the pandemic. While we are proud of the success of our remote education programs, we are also committed to continuing to offer our students the experience of being and learning on a college campus.

To do so at our institution, a team of our university clinicians, molecular biologists, technologists, infectious disease experts, bioinformatics specialists, disease modelers, public health experts and others has launched a new program called Return to Learn. The initial phase, which begins May 11, is designed to make COVID-19 testing available for up to 5,000 students who continue to reside on our campus.

Our hope is that this initial phase will provide us with the knowledge and insight to eventually scale up to where we could potentially test monthly the vast majority of the roughly 65,000 students, faculty and staff members on campus. If all goes well in the initial phase, this effort could be ready for large-scale deployment as early as this fall. By testing large numbers of our students, faculty and staff on a recurring basis, we hope to be able to quickly identify COVID-19 infections on the campus and thereby help to reduce the risk of a significant outbreak.

This proposed program is unprecedented and audacious. If successful, it could serve as a model -- not only for higher education, but also for cities, counties and states working to fight the spread of coronavirus.

The Return to Learn program has five major components:

  1. Risk assessment and mitigation. Through comprehensive review of the physical and functional aspects of our campus, we are seeking new strategies for stratifying and reducing transmission risk of coronavirus, such as optimal class sizes and density, scope and structure for co-curricular activities, and appropriate personal behaviors, like safe distancing and use of face coverings, to help reduce spread of the virus.
  2. Proactive vigilance. Among the painful lessons learned thus far is that public response and action to coronavirus cannot be solely reactive. We have created rigorous mathematical models for an enhanced viral monitoring program that should help us to detect the presence of the virus on our campus in its earliest stages, possibly before people even know they’re infected. According to our models, if we are able to successfully test 60 to 90 percent of our campus population for viral infection each month on a recurring basis, we could have a greater than 90 percent chance of detecting its spread when fewer than 10 people among tens of thousands are actively, but unknowingly, shedding viral particles. This is possible because, as a research university with a deep reservoir of tools -- from innovative sampling techniques to high-throughput nucleic acid detection platforms to extensive public health expertise -- we have the requisite research and clinical know-how to do so. And what we learn, we will share with everyone.
  3. Rapid response. If a testing sample proves positive for coronavirus, a specially trained, campus-based public health team will attempt to reach out to that person to notify them and provide guidance on health care. The team will also try to identify and notify persons with whom the infected person may have had close contact in previous days -- an effort known as exposure notification.
  4. Technological tools. The novel coronavirus is highly contagious and capable of extraordinary transmission speeds. We seek to work fast, too, and comprehensively. Recent studies suggest the coronavirus may be most infectious before symptoms appear. Therefore, to further enhance chances of catching the virus early, our program will also look for viral RNA from residential wastewater and surface collections. If the virus is detected, molecular sequence analyses will be used to create a database to help guide public health measures. By combining information technologies, cutting-edge epidemiology tools, diverse cellular and molecular sciences, and traditional public health interventions, our approach offers the possibility of extraordinary levels of viral control at the population level.
  5. Big picture. All these efforts will be integrated to promote early analyses of viral activity signals and quicker response times. The Return to Learn program has been designed to identify clusters of individuals shedding virus or those at greater risk in specific locations, whether it’s a residence hall or a particular classroom. That will permit faster treatment, earlier mitigation of identified issues and continuing refinement and improvement of the system.

No one knows what the world -- even our small part of it -- will look like a month from now, let alone in September when we begin our fall classes. Everything is subject to constant change and evolution, not unlike coronavirus.

But what we do know is that higher education possesses the skills, knowledge and abilities to make significant contributions to getting our economy and society back on track as soon as possible. The University of California, San Diego, Return to Learn program represents higher education at its finest, and if successful, it can help this university and similar institutions to do what we do best: teach, conduct leading-edge research and provide service to our communities.

Next Story

Written By

More from Views