Targeted testing of surfaces and students helps USF keep risk of COVID-19 low

You could call it C.S.I. COVID-19, but at the University of South Florida, they call it environmental testing. It’s one of the spokes in a multi-faceted plan that has kept new coronavirus numbers relatively low at USF.

Thomas Unnasch, Ph.D., of the USF College of Public Health, and others have been busy in the laboratory where hundreds of COVOD-19 tests are analyzed.

Football players and coaches are tested twice per week. Other students are randomly tested.

There's also environmental testing, which takes place in the common areas of dorms on the Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses. There are two goals related to detecting COVID-19 on surfaces students might touch. The first is to keep those areas clean and prevent further spread of the virus. The second is to perform targeted tests on those who frequent those areas in an effort to find current infections.

“Elevator buttons, faucet handles, door handles, places like that," explained Unnasch. "If you can detect the virus on these surfaces it indicates that somebody around there has put it on that surface.”

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In a dorm, for example, when COVID-19 is detected on surfaces on a specific floor, everyone on that floor is tested and anyone who is positive can be isolated.

So far the strategy has paid off. Just over 1% of those tested at USF has been positive. That’s not far from the rate for the rest of Hillsborough County.

“The students, I think, are doing a good job,” says Unnasch. “They’re wearing the masks, they’re doing the social distancing, we haven’t seen evidence of large big blowout parties or things like that."

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Large gatherings are against the rules and USF officials were cautious from the start. Students came back to campus slowly when the fall term began. More recently, USF switched its spring break from March to April. Students won’t come back to classes for the final week of school and final exams will be done remotely.

“Luckily we haven’t had to dial back yet,” says Unnasch, who credits USF’s plan and the cooperation of students with holding the line on COVID-19.