By Dillon Thomas

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (CBS4) – Colorado State University has resorted to housing more than 60 students off-campus as part of COVID-19 quarantines. At least 60 students were asked to live in a nearby hotel for the duration of their COVID-19 recovery; 21 are quarantining in dormitories; 17 have chosen to live at home during their isolation.

(credit: CBS)

While CSU ran out of quarantine rooms on campus, researchers at the Fort Collins campus are applauding the university’s ability to isolate positive cases long before they can spread.

CSU’s current COVID-19 coronavirus positivity rate is almost four times lower than that of rival University of Colorado at Boulder. Other universities around the country are having outbreak numbers similar to CU’s.

Dr. Mark Zabel, professor in the Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology Department told CBS4 the university’s rigorous efforts to identify positive cases early can be credited for their lower positivity rate.

“Rarely have we seen anything mobilized this quickly,” Zabel told CBS4’s Dillon Thomas.

CSU has developed technologies and systems to identify COVID-19 before most ill individuals know they have the virus. The process begins with wastewater testing throughout the campus, and specifically at the dormitories.

Humans shed coronavirus in their waste days before they exhibit symptoms, if they have symptoms at all.

(credit: CBS)

Researchers on campus installed sampling devices in the sewer lines that collect raw sewage water over 24 hour periods. From there, the samples are removed and tested for levels of COVID-19.

If a dormitory’s overall sewage output demonstrates a spike in coronavirus data, the university then has all residents submit individual saliva samples.

Those saliva samples, which are individually linked to each student, are transferred to Zabel’s on-campus laboratory for testing.

“It’s a lot easier to collect (saliva samples) than a nasal swab,” Zabel said. “It’s faster. It’s cheaper.”

The samples are then tested by a team of graduate students on the Fort Collins campus. By sampling saliva droplets, and running them through a machine, a computer can easily identify who is linked to the spike of COVID-19 shed in wastewater.

Often times the students who tested positive are identified less than eight hours after they submitted a saliva sample, and less than 48 hours after they shed the virus in the sewer.

With a virus that oftentimes takes more than three days to develop symptoms, identifying cases in under 48 hours is crucial to isolation efforts.

“We were able to identify students and remove them from the dorms, and isolate them, while we allowed the other individuals who tested negative to continue their daily activities,” Zabel said. “Which expedites contact tracing, quarantining, and allows to stay on top of any outbreaks we may encounter.”

(credit: CBS)

CSU has also partnered with the State of Colorado to do wastewater testing for millions of Coloradans along the I-25 corridor.

The saliva test has not been FDA approved, yet. Students who test positive for COVID-19 via the on-campus saliva test are asked to take a nasal swab exam to solidify results.

The university has acknowledged that they are not boastful of their lower COVID-19 rates thus far, as the virus could jump on them anytime. However, they are proud of their response thus far to keep it managed significantly.

“The proof is in the pudding. Our positivity rate is very low compared to other universities. It’s the reason why we are still able to remain on campus,” Zabel said.

Dillon Thomas

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