KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — New wastewater testing on the University of Tennessee campus confirms what everyone assumed: COVID-19 is present among some students.
Dr. Deborah Crawford, who is overseeing UT's new systematic testing strategy, said Tuesday crews started gathering wastewater samples from campus facilities last week and will continue the process through the semester to track the presence of the virus.
People who carry COVID-19, even those who aren't sick, shed small genetic fragments of the virus through the wastewater.
Crawford, UT's vice chancellor for research, discussed new testing efforts, including a program to collect the spit of all student residents, during UTK Chancellor Donde Plowman's online community update.
Administrators also announced UT was joining the University of Kentucky in studying whether it's possible to reduce the 14-day quarantine period currently recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for anyone exposed to the virus.
New UT positive case numbers show a sharp drop from last week. As of Tuesday morning's report, there were 178 positive cases among students and staff.
On Sept. 15, there were 645 total cases.
Experts cautioned, however, the drop could be a sign that not as many students are getting tested. They're urging students to seek free tests at the Student Health Center even if they think they may just have minor cold or allergy symptoms.
Wastewater testing has been planned for weeks.
Crawford said campus researchers are doing the work. Routine monitoring can help the university see if the presence of the virus is rising or falling generally over time.
Pooled saliva testing is also planned this week at Hess and White residence halls, she said. Students will be asked to spit into a tube before they eat.
Results will help researchers understand what percentage of the sampled population is positive with the disease.
Saliva testing will expand in the coming weeks. The results will allow experts to know where they should focus the very direct nasal swab testing in a dorm or Greek residence.
When someone is in quarantine, it's assumed that symptoms of the virus could show up at any time within the 14-day required period. But perhaps 14 days really isn't necessary.
The study, which UK is a part of, will take a closer look at whether the necessary quarantine phase could be shorter. Some students in quarantine will undergo intermittent nasal swab testing to check for the presence of COVID-19.
The data could show, for example, that no students consistently present a positive test after seven days or 10 days, suggesting a shorter quarantine time period is acceptable, authorities said.
Right now almost 850 people in the UT community are either in quarantine or self-isolation. People in self-isolation are actual virus patients.