As thousands of students are back on campus for the Fall semester, UF has expanded wastewater testing to identify more COVID-19 cases and locate more areas that may have a higher risk of outbreaks.
Near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, UF initiated GatorWATCH — which stands for Wastewater Analysis and Tracking for Community Health — in April 2020 to mitigate the spread of the virus through testing wastewater on campus.
Wastewater testing is designed to detect the virus in wastewater, not identify cases, UF Health spokesperson Ken Garcia wrote in an email. By using this testing, GatorWATCH can determine where to target testing on campus to find cases and provide an idea of COVID-19 spread on campus through the Screen, Test & Protect dashboard, he wrote.
GatorWATCH initially tested 28 locations, including residence halls, campus apartment complexes and Greek houses.
Now, with the emergence of the Delta variant and students’ return to campus, four additional residences were added — resulting in 32 wastewater testing locations on campus.
Buckman Hall and Fletcher Hall residents received an email from UF Health Screen, Test and Protect Aug. 26 notifying them of a COVID-19 detection in the wastewater in those areas.
Madelyn Markman, who lives in Buckman, was scared when she found out.
Markman, a 19-year-old UF French and film and media studies sophomore, said residents have been alert since seeing the email, wondering if they should attend class. She said she always wears her mask and would consider wearing two masks. Buckman Hall staff members have urged residents to get tested if they develop symptoms.
“It was a reassuring atmosphere that we will fight against COVID,” Markman said.
Emma Skelhorn, a 19-year-old UF wildlife ecology and conservation sophomore, lives in Fletcher Hall and said she was worried and confused after getting the email, as she had never heard of wastewater testing. She hasn’t noticed changes in Fletcher residents' behavior but said she has been wearing a mask more than usual.
Skelhorn said residents haven’t received further updates on wastewater testing from UF, but she believes there’s not much the school can do. UF has effectively urged students to wear masks, she said, and she thought the vaccination drive in Spring 2021 was successful.
“If COVID is detected in the wastewater, they should be a little stronger in their wording when it comes to testing,” Skelhorn said.
On July 8, UF Health Screen, Test & Protect sent an email warning students of COVID-19 traces found in wastewater near the Mallory Hall area. The message urged students to take a free COVID-19 test within two days.
The expansion of wastewater testing is part of an effort to cover locations that were vacant or not available for normal housing last year, Joseph Bisesi, a UF environmental toxicologist and one of three leaders of GatorWATCH, wrote in an email.
Created by public health, microbiology and environmental toxicology experts, along with medical and facilities personnel, GatorWATCH alerts UF’s Screen, Test and Protect program if the virus is found.
The team worked with UF Facilities Services to find the best sampling locations that would cover about 500 residents in the building or building group, Bisesi wrote.
It’s hard to predict cases based on wastewater measurements, Bisesi wrote, because the amount of virus that’s shed by an infected person varies depending on different factors. He wrote that different amounts of the virus will flow from different buildings, making it hard to determine how much of the virus will infect the wastewater in a given area.
Sara Tanner, chief of staff in Division of Student Life, wrote in an email that if a student lives in a residence hall or Greek house and must be withheld from campus, UF will no longer provide students alternative housing to quarantine in.
“There are a limited number of spaces for students with extenuating circumstances (i.e. international or out-of-state students) and that would be considered on a case-by-case bases,” she said.
Similar to previous semesters, some of the accommodations will be in graduate housing apartments. UF has investigated ventilation in those places, she wrote, and each apartment has its own air conditioning unit. But if a student lives in graduate or family housing and needs to be withheld from campus, that student may remain in their apartment, Tanner said.
Aside from UF, Bisesi said the team is still checking wastewater in Gainesville and Cedar Key. Both locations are using data sources to make decisions on public health precautions within city limits.
The team is also conducting wastewater sampling at the two water reclamation facilities in Gainesville, but that surveillance is for research purposes rather than public health decisions.
“Currently, we will continue sampling through the end of the fall semester,” Bisesi wrote. “After that, UF will reassess whether they want to continue the wastewater surveillance.”
Students and faculty can find the COVID-19 Gainesville campus testing schedule here. Vaccine information and locations can be found here.
Contact J.P. at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @joprison.
JP is a fourth-year journalism major with a minor in history. He is currently the health reporter for The Alligator, focusing on how the pandemic is affecting Alachua County and the thousands of students in Gainesville. In his free time, JP likes to exercise at the gym and relax on the beach.