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UT pooled saliva tests find dozens of potential COVID-19 cases at two dorms

UT said it is working to better identify COVID-19 cases across campus after worries that some students may be intentionally avoiding getting tested.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — UPDATE (Sept. 29, 2020): On Tuesday, UT Chancellor Donde Plowman provided an update on pooled COVID-19 saliva testing on campus that are trying to find potential case clusters in residence halls. 

The university took saliva samples from 574 people at White and Hess Halls last week.

The samples were then pooled together in groups of 5, and 21 of those pooled samples -- which include roughly 105 people -- have been referred to the Student Health Center for follow-up individual PCR testing, meaning the results identified potential cases of COVID-19 among those students. 

About 5% of the samples are still being tested. UT said it will take new pooled saliva samples every week at different residence halls for the rest of the semester.

Dr. Deborah Crawford said the results of the saliva testing show students need to be very aware and cautious of any minor respiratory symptoms that they have this fall and winter and should seek testing, even if they believe it's 'only allergies.'

"These results tell us the virus is pernicious, and that the virus is being spread by people who don't know they have the symptoms or misattribute them to something like allergies," she said. 

Chancellor Plowman and Dr. Crawford once again warned students about their high potential for being asymptomatic spreaders. While the virus has not largely been seen to pose the same health risks to young people compared to those who are older, health experts warn that young people with no symptoms can put many other people in harm's way with this virus if they are being reckless and ignoring that risk. They continue to ask everyone to follow the 5 core actions of social distancing, wearing masks and handwashing to prevent people from unknowingly spreading the virus to others more at risk of serious complications.

Original Story:

The University of Tennessee Friday announced it has begun conducting pooled saliva tests at residence halls on campus as worries grow that students are avoiding getting tested for COVID-19, allowing it to spread silently.

In the past week, UT and the Knox County Health Department have raised concerns that people are not seeking out testing for various reasons, such as misattributing minor symptoms of COVID-19 to seasonal allergies or the common cold. The reason they believe this is because the number of tests and new positive cases of COVID-19 suddenly dropped together, despite more COVID hospitalizations being seen in Knox County.

While the drop in cases potentially reflects lower actual spread of COVID-19, Chancellor Donde Plowman and other health officials said they are being cautious because of the notable decrease in testing that occurred at the same time -- particularly with UT students. 

"Hopefully they reflect a lower rate of positivity, but it's more likely related to be a decrease in participation in testing, " Dr. Spencer Gregg with UT said. "At the student health center, we've seen a significant decline in the number of individuals being tested -- and it's not because of a lack of availability of tests."

While UT has been conducting waste water sampling to track down potential COVID-19 clusters on campus, it has now begun pooled saliva testing at residence halls to get a better idea precisely where on campus COVID-19 is spreading.

This week -- UT conducted pooled saliva tests at White and Hess Halls, and students were required to participate. UT said it expects results from those tests early next week and will be conducting the tests across campus.

The saliva tests are much quicker and don't require people to undergo uncomfortable nasal swabs, but are very limited compared to the nasal swab PCR tests used to test if a person is positive or negative. The results cannot tell health officials who actually has the virus since they test a pool of saliva from multiple people, but can identify specific clusters of people who potentially have the virus.

Dr. Spencer said the tests will help them estimate the true burden of COVID-19 on campus not being seen because most students are likely to be asymptomatic carriers, find facilities and areas on campus where COVID-19 is spreading so they can reduce people's likelihood of exposure, and inform decisions on more precise mitigation measures and restrictions.

If a pooled saliva sample tests positive for COVID-19, Spencer said they then will follow up with everyone who was tested in that pool and perform more specific tests to find which individuals actually have it, such as the PCR nasal swab test. 

With the news that there are fewer active COVID-19 cases on campus, Plowman said there was also good news for students and staff.

Plowman said UT is relaxing some campus restrictions starting Monday because of significant declines in numbers seen recently.

UT will be re-opening the T-RECS recreation and fitness facility for normal hours, and will once again allow indoor events so long as people follow social distancing rules -- including keeping the events down to 25 people within the same indoor space.

Restrictions on banning outside visitors, however, will remain in place for residence halls, sorority and fraternity houses.

UT also said they are very concerned about people not following rules recently at the John C. Hodges Library on campus, particularly people not wearing masks during the late afternoon and evening hours after classes are over.

Provost John Zomchick said the most concerning thing they have seen is utter non-compliance with wearing facial coverings, which library staff counted as few as 15% of patrons wearing masks during the evening. He also said students have been moving tables closer together that were intentionally moved far apart to prevent the virus spreading to others, and some are cramming into small study rooms and ignoring posted capacity limits. 

"These behaviors are putting everyone who uses the library at increased risk at getting sick," Zomchick said. 

Plowman said they are going to increase enforcement in the library to ensure students are following simple rules and not creating a situation where they'd potentially have to close or limit usage of the library. 

"The facial masks could not be more important," Plowman said. "Wearing masks is the reason we are able to keep [the library] open."