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'We Can’t Relax:' USF To Test Residential Students For Coronavirus Upon Return

As coronavirus numbers rise to unprecedented heights, the University of South Florida is rolling out a plan to test all residential students upon their return to campus.

“The virus activity in almost every community in America is higher than it's ever been,” said Joseph Puccio, executive and medical director of Student Health Services at USF.

“There's some optimism in the fact that the vaccine is on the horizon for the general public, but I am quite nervous following the holidays of what the positivity rate is going to be like.”

Shortly before Christmas, Hillsborough County's two-week positive test rate was near 10%, twice the level recommended by global health experts for safe reopening of schools and businesses.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says travels boosts people's risk of becoming infected, and urged people to stay home after hospitals grappled with a spike in COVID-19 cases following the Thanksgiving holiday.

About 57% of USF classes are expected to take place in person this spring. Students who arrive on campus will be given the most accurate type of test, a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, with results in 24 hours, Puccio said.

“We are not doing a rapid antigen test because people who are not symptomatic...many of those end up having a false negative rapid antigen,” Puccio said, adding the false negative rate he’s seen is around 15%.

Returning students will also be asked to limit their interactions with others while they wait for their test result. After that, weekly random testing of students will start again, with three percent of the student body tested on a regular basis.

A similar testing strategy was rolled out at the start of the fall semester, and Puccio said USF did a good job in managing coronavirus cases that arose among students and staff.

“We've actually had a significantly lower incidence of infection as compared to the surrounding community, which I think reinforces that the policies and procedures that we did put into effect for the fall were very successful. And we're hoping that this may continue going into the spring semester,” he said.

With nearly 50,000 students in total, USF’s three campuses have seen just over 1,000 cases since the start of the fall semester, according to the New York Times College COVID Tracker.

USF Health experts have warned that the vaccine won’t arrive in time to stop this next wave of coronavirus.

There is no set date for the vaccine to be delivered to college-age students, but Puccio expects it may be March or April by the time students can begin receiving the first of two shots.

“We can't relax. We need to really stick by those standards of wearing face masks, social distancing, washing hands. Hang in there a couple more months,” Puccio said.

“All the policies that we put in place for classroom instruction, I think have been helpful. But as people interact with other people in the community, that's where the challenges really begin,” he added.

“I am very concerned about the potential number of positive cases following the holidays, we have seen all of the trends and all of the modeling that has been done. And we're seeing that the numbers throughout the country are following those models.”

Puccio urged all students to keep a six-foot distance from others, wear a mask, wash their hands regularly, and choose outdoor settings whenever possible.

“We have seen that a lot of the super spreading events have occurred when there are large groups of people inside,” Puccio said.

“So if you are going to meet with people, try to do it outside as much as possible. And limit inside activity to your immediate family or to the immediate people that you live with.”

Joe Puccio, director of USF Student Health Services, speaks to WUSF on a Zoom call
Joe Puccio, director of USF Student Health Services, speaks to WUSF on a Zoom call

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Kerry Sheridan is a reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media.