Thirteen students at the University of Colorado Boulder have tested positive for COVID-19, and more could be identified in the coming days, given concerning data from four on-campus dormitories flagged by sewer sampling stations designed to pick up signs of the novel coronavirus.
The dorms in question are Darley North, Darley South, Libby Hall and Willard Hall.
While administrators at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, which has ten positive student cases and four probables according to the latest outbreaks report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, decided to move instruction online for the start of the academic year, there's no indication that the powers-that-be at CU Boulder are poised to take a similar step. But in a communication shared with students, faculty and staff late yesterday, September 2, and released to the general public at 4:04 a.m. today, Dan Joes, the associate vice chancellor for integrity, safety and compliance, hints that further flare-ups could require additional action.
"The next few days will be critical to our ability to maintain our current operating status," Jones notes. "It is imperative that we all continue to follow public-health orders, avoid large gatherings, wear masks and practice physical distancing."
This new spike in COVID-19 cases isn't the first for CU Boulder. In July, two positive cases were identified among ten members of what was identified by the CDPHE as CU Athletics Training Group D. After the department formally added the group to its outbreaks roster the next month, a university spokesperson told Westword: "We’re confident that the protocols we’ve had in place since voluntary workouts began in June — including our cohort model for workouts, daily symptom checks by our training staff, ongoing testing, enhanced cleaning protocols and robust screening prior to student-athletes being cleared to work out on campus — are key to minimizing spread within our facilities when positive cases do occur. We will continue this diligence throughout fall workouts to protect the well-being of our student-athletes, staff, campus and community."
When we visited Boulder last month, after CU students had returned, we saw impressive compliance with public-health guidelines on the campus, but much less diligence in the area known as the Hill and at nearby fraternities and sororities — and indeed, Associate Vice Chancellor Jones confirms that two additional COVID-19 diagnoses are tied to a sorority house.
The latest rash of positive cases were found through an approach detailed in "How Sampling Campus Wastewater Aims to Keep COVID-19 in Check," an August 27 article posted on CU's website. The piece outlines the installation of 23 sewer sampling stations on campus that are being monitored by a team under the tutelage of Cresten Mansfeldt, an assistant professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering. Because between 40 and 80 percent of infected individuals shed the virus, remnants often wind up in sewage. "It’s not a diagnosis, but could identify whether or not there are infections in certain areas of the campus," Mansfeldt said. "It complements the entire framework being deployed at the university."
Following the sewage-station alerts, saliva-based tests were administered to students living in the four dorms, resulting in the thirteen positives; students who have not yet been tested are encouraged to undergo the procedure as soon as possible. But Jones isn't hitting the panic button yet.
"We expected spikes like this might occur and have planned for this possibility," he emphasizes. "As we did during the increase in off-campus cases earlier this summer, we are rapidly employing our testing, contact tracing and isolation protocols in partnership with BCPH to contain the potential for community spread."
Here's Jones's letter, with the bold passages reproduced from the original.
Integrity, Safety and Compliance — September 2
Dear students, faculty and staff,
I am writing to update you regarding our campus COVID-19 conditions. Our CU Boulder testing, contact tracing and Boulder County Public Health (BCPH) collaborations alerted us this morning to a potential increase in positive COVID-19 cases among our on and off-campus students. These systems are in place to provide early alerts so that we can take additional measures and prevent spread.
• Our surveillance wastewater testing uncovered possible COVID-19 presence in four residence halls. This includes Darley North, Darley South, Libby Hall and Willard Hall.
As a precaution, early this afternoon we notified students in Darley North, Darley South and Libby Hall who had not already done so this week to complete saliva-based monitoring tests today to identify potential cases and implement measures for containing community spread. Those who were not able to get to a testing site this afternoon or earlier this week are encouraged to get tested in the morning. Willard Hall students were notified this evening of the need to get tested tomorrow if they have not already completed a monitoring test this week.
We also notified staff who have worked in the buildings and are asking them to get tested, too.
Based on testing and contact tracing efforts and prevalence of positive COVID-19 cases, we will work with our public health partners to make decisions about isolation or quarantine as necessary.
• On-campus saliva-based monitoring testing on Tuesday yielded 13 positive results that were referred to the Public Health Clinic at Wardenburg for diagnostic testing.
The process of confirming those non-diagnostic results with diagnostic PCR tests is ongoing. Once confirmed by diagnostic PCR testing, positive results are reflected on the campus COVID-19 dashboard on a daily basis.
• We became aware of two positive COVID-19 cases in a sorority house and are following up with the sorority to complete contact tracing and testing, ensure isolation needs have been met, and make sure the students have the support they need.
• We became aware of one positive COVID-19 case in a fraternity as well and are working with Boulder County Public Health in determining the appropriate containment measures and providing support to the students.
• It is important to note that there may be some overlap between the monitoring testing referrals, diagnostic test results and positive cases we’ve become aware of at the Greek houses. So these numbers may not be cumulative, but they likely represent a significant increase in our positivity rate, and we will likely be confirming cases through diagnostic testing as early as tomorrow.
Our immediate actions include:
• Follow-up diagnostic testing based on our monitoring efforts.
• Contact tracing of affected individuals, both on and off campus, including referrals for testing and self-quarantine.
• Continued surveillance efforts, monitoring and diagnostic testing, with adjustments to target our communities most at risk based on the cases we’ve identified this week.
• The potential need to quarantine or isolate some of our affected communities of students.
We are concerned with this likely increase in positive cases over the past 24 hours, and we anticipate the increase in confirmed positive cases will continue through the remainder of the week.
We expected spikes like this might occur and have planned for this possibility. As we did during the increase in off-campus cases earlier this summer, we are rapidly employing our testing, contact tracing and isolation protocols in partnership with BCPH to contain the potential for community spread.
• We will continue to be flexible and ready to rapidly respond to COVID-19 in a way that best protects our community based upon the latest information available to us.
• We will continue to share regular updates on campus and local conditions through our COVID-19 dashboard and ongoing communications.
• We will continue to monitor factors related to testing results and contact tracing to assess our campus mode of operation and whether a change in status is needed.
The next few days will be critical to our ability to maintain our current operating status. It is imperative that we all continue to follow public health orders, avoid large gatherings, wear masks and practice physical distancing.
Our decisions will hinge upon our ability to respond effectively to positive cases using the resources we’ve developed over the past months. Should a change in operating status become necessary, we will use the same notification methods used for urgent announcements like snow closures, including updates on the campus website, text alerts and email to all campus stakeholders. Provost Moore will work with the faculty on any instructional changes.
The measures we have put into place — wastewater monitoring, surveillance and diagnostic testing, contact tracing and isolation — have been working to help us identify potential outbreaks early, minimize the risk of community spread and care for our infected students.
Now, let’s all continue to do our part to protect each other and our university.
Associate Vice Chancellor for Integrity Safety and Compliance
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.