COPH professor, students root out COVID in residence halls, other campus hotspots

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If COVID-19 is going to take a hold anywhere on campus, the USF residence halls—where students sleep, eat, play and study—seem as likely a place as any. Ditto high-traffic areas, home to frequently touched surfaces such as doorknobs, elevator buttons and vending machines.

To help identify an area of virus activity and contain it before it becomes widespread, Dr. Thomas Unnasch, a Distinguished University professor at the USF College of Public Health (COPH) and student volunteers from the Judy Genshaft Honors College and the COPH’s Foundations in Global Health course, set out at the beginning of the semester to swab frequently touched surfaces in residence halls and other campus locations. Residence hall staff swab dorms while students take samples from around campus. The results are then analyzed in Unnasch’s lab. 

Horizon Hall, one of the USF residence halls where COVID sampling was done. (Photo courtesy of USF Housing and Residential Education)

“Our aim has been to provide a warning of virus hotspots on campus,” said Unnasch. “It’s a tool to supplement the COVID-19 symptom checker and the on-campus and random testing being done.”

The swabbing is performed weekly, with roughly 500 samples taken to date. So far, two residence halls were found to have active infections. When there’s a positive hit, residents and staff in the halls are tested individually and positive cases are isolated, said Unnasch. If an environmental sampling from elsewhere on campus is positive for COVID, extra disinfecting measures may be taken and the students and staff who frequent the area may be encouraged to get tested.

Overall, environmental samples testing positive for COVID-19 have been few, reported Unnasch. “That’s been surprising to me,” he said. “But it correlates with the low level of positive tests from the university’s random testing program.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health