Oglethorpe implements wastewater testing to aid COVID-19 detection on campus

As Oglethorpe welcomed students and personnel back to campus for the spring semester, an unexpected method for identifying COVID-19 on campus has been implemented. It starts with collecting samples of wastewater, and while it might be an unenviable task, similar measures have been successful at other colleges and universities.

With guidance from Oglethorpe’s public health consultants at Canton & Company, the university partnered with NOVA Engineering to administer weekly wastewater tests across residence halls on campus. Wastewater samples are collected from each building, and RNA is extracted from the concentrated samples. From the sample, it can be determined if the COVID-19 virus is present and then traced to the residence hall from where that sample was collected.

This additional measure of surveillance testing provides two benefits. First, it can detect the presence of the virus up to five days prior to someone presenting symptoms. The second benefit is that it quickly and efficiently determines the need for targeted COVID-19 testing among a building’s residents, which can help lessen community spread and prevent a large outbreak from occurring.

“The decision to test wastewater in residence halls adds an additional layer of protection to our campus community,” said Lance Knight, assistant vice president for campus operations. “The priority was placed on testing wastewater from residence halls weekly because the residential students make up the largest grouping of community members on campus this spring.”

“Another way to think of wastewater testing is like a flashlight that helps us see in the dark,” Knight added. “Containing COVID-19 spread is paramount to our campus strategy, and by adding this testing method, we can act quickly to pinpoint and, hopefully, prevent a potential outbreak before symptoms even occur in an individual.”

Wastewater testing is just one of many strategies Oglethorpe has established to limit the spread of COVID-19 among the campus community. Baseline testing of all campus residents and commuters was conducted during the first week of classes. Weekly surveillance testing of 10% of the population with campus access is taking place throughout the semester, and routine testing of student-athletes is being conducted once per week at minimum. Additionally, all residents, commuters and authorized personnel with campus access participate in daily health screenings via the LifeguardRx mobile app to report any potential symptoms of COVID-19.

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