COVID Cases on Campus Fall After Initial Surge, Testing Efforts Increase


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The number of UC San Diego students testing positive for COVID-19 has fallen since the beginning of winter quarter, after an initial surge in infections among students returning to on and off campus housing from winter break.

According to the Return to Learn dashboard, 203 students tested positive between January 4 and 10. However, the number of cases fell gradually over the next four weeks as the University increased testing frequency and other prevention efforts.  The positivity rate among students reached a high of 1.8% in the first week of winter quarter but fell to 0.3% by January 30.

Overall, 397 students living on and off campus have tested positive for COVID since the start of winter quarter.

“Right now, we don’t think there’s much transmission on campus, which is good news,” said Dr. Robert T. “Chip” Schooley, a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health and co-lead of the Return to Learn program. “We think that the transmission is mainly off campus and social events.”

University faculty and staff like Schooley, who anticipated surges after major holiday breaks, prepared to address the large increase of COVID-19 cases at the start of winter break by making COVID testing kits more accessible through vending machines on campus, requiring weekly testings, and quickly moving affected individuals to isolation and quarantine housing. Making the contact tracing process more efficient and expanding the wastewater detection system have also aided the efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus cases.

Eleanor Roosevelt College (ERC) Residential Assistant (RA) Pooja Chitle said that although the rise in cases was expected, she was still scared by the surge. She speculated that one cause in the rise of COVID cases following the start of winter quarter was that some residents who returned to campus did not self-isolate while waiting for their test results, which led to their suitemates contracting COVID.

“Even if you’ve done everything right and you’ve been safe, you’re still always worried that something could happen or [that] you inadvertently came into contact with a resident,” Chitle said.

There was a case where an ERC resident who tested positive for COVID one morning did not receive a call from isolation services until later that night.

“They were emailing us like ‘What do I do? I received a positive result but nobody’s called me or anything yet,’” Chitle said. “And we were having to redirect them to our supervisor and our supervisor hadn’t received the call either. And so there was kind of that lag maybe because there [were] a lot more cases than before when we first came back to campus after the break.”

Aside from the rise in cases at the start of winter quarter, Chitle said UCSD handled contact tracing and other procedures related to COVID cases well during fall quarter when fewer people tested positive.

“When we first came back, it was a lot and it was kind of overwhelming, and that’s not really an excuse because when it’s something like COVID they should be on top of it. They knew that coming back there would be more cases. But I think outside of that instance, it’s been alright,” Chitle said.

While the implemented measures have succeeded and the number of COVID cases has dropped with each passing week since January 4, another concern has emerged: new more contagious coronavirus variants from the UK appearing in San Diego.

“Currently we think [the variants] make up about 2 to 5% of San Diego’s isolates, but once they get a foothold they increase rapidly and over the next four to six weeks will probably replace the strains that we’ve been dealing with and when they do that, we’re going to have a much more difficult time containing virus,” Schooley said.

According to Schooley, these new coronavirus strains are showing to be more transmissible, but widely promoted public health measures including social distancing and wearing face masks are still effective in preventing people from contracting the COVID variants. Even so, increasing numbers of infections can provide more possibilities for mutant strains to emerge. 

“The importance of decreasing spread, even among those whose own health risk is low, can’t be overemphasized,” Schooley said. “We really need to keep this virus from having more chances to show its ingenuity and change and evolve while we wait for these vaccines to get here.”

Elizabeth Peng is a staff writer for The Triton. You can follow her @ElizabethPeng4. Assistant News Editor Julianna Domingo assisted with the research and writing for this article. You can follow her here @coolyannaa.