Chairs and tables in the University of Texas at San Antonio cafeteria are separated and labeled to allow for social distancing.
Chairs and tables in the University of Texas at San Antonio cafeteria are separated and labeled to allow for social distancing. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

From Aug. 3 to Aug. 23, Trinity University tested more than 2,600 students, faculty, and staff for coronavirus.

“If you were going to be learning, living, or teaching on campus, you were asked to participate in mass testing, or you were required to participate in mass testing, as well as participate in specialized training and sign a health pledge,” said Tess Coody-Anders, Trinity’s vice president for strategic communications and marketing.

As of Friday, about a month after mass testing began on campus, the small liberal arts university’s positivity rate was under 1 percent with 12 people testing positive out of 2,618 people tested. One person remains in on-campus quarantine and isolation.

Trinity University is an outlier among San Antonio universities when it comes to testing – with approaches by local four-year institutions running the gamut. No other university is conducting mass testing for its entire student or staff population. Our Lady of the Lake University is the only local university to not offer tests on campus.

Visitors to OLLU’s campus are required to fill out a health screening virtually before arriving. A university employee is tasked with checking the application’s reports each day and telling students who display symptoms to go to their doctor for a test.

“We’re working with two, possibly three, community health providers at this point to develop a partnership with them so they can become a preferred provider and we can send our students out for tests,” President Diane Melby said, adding that most students are not on campus this semester. “For our students, we checked our clinic records and found that our students weren’t using our clinic anyway.”

Should an OLLU student living on campus test positive, they’ll be sent to a separate dorm for isolation. The school publishes COVID-related statistics on an internal portal available to students, faculty, and staff, a university spokesman said.

At Texas A&M University-San Antonio, tests are available on campus for students and employees who have experienced COVID-19 symptoms or been in direct contact with someone who tested positive.

Each month, the university receives 700 tests that the school can administer for free. TAMU-SA officials target students for these tests because they are the most likely to be uninsured or under-insured, said Mari Fuentes-Martin, TAMU-SA’s vice president for student success and engagement.

University officials ask the 275 students who live in the sole university residence hall to complete testing monthly.

“That’s just kind of a safety check because if you’re going to live in a community 24-7, let’s take that extra step and be safe,” Fuentes-Martin said.

She said if a student who lives in the residence hall tests positive, university protocols dictate that they should isolate and quarantine, and the university will “help them through that process.”

The school also asks students taking classes from their homes to alert TAMU-SA if they test positive because a positive test result could adjust their ability to meet course requirements or add emotional stressors, Fuentes-Martin said.

When students arrive at the South Side campus, they must check in at wellness stations that screen them for their temperature and any recent symptoms. If they don’t raise any alarming issues such as a high temperature or loss of taste, students receive a colored bracelet.

Fuentes-Martin leads an in-person class every Monday and Wednesday and always asks her students to show her their wrists as a preventive measure. Public health data is available publicly on the university’s website.

At the University of Texas at San Antonio, where just 5 percent of the 3,700 fall courses are offered in-person, testing is available on campus for current UTSA students who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms and have completed a telemedicine evaluation with Student Health Services.

UTSA offers coronavirus testing on campus if students meet certain requirements. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As of Sept. 11, 960 students and 380 faculty or staff received tests through university health services or UTSA partner testing sites.

Students, faculty, and staff not displaying symptoms can also receive tests from the Livingston Med Lab, through a partnership with UTSA. The costs of the tests are billed to the student’s health insurance plan or to CARES Act funding if the student is uninsured.

UTSA’s residence halls are less than 50 percent full, said Veronica Salazar Mendez, the school’s vice president of business affairs. If a student living on campus tests positive, they can move into a quarantine wing of residence halls, she said.

Trinity University has prepared for the same possibility, building out an integrated care team of health care providers and supplemental services including dining and laundry.

“A student is the first one to assess for whether or not they can stay in their own room or whether they need to be moved to an isolation room and then based on the clinician and contact tracer’s assessments, they and anybody that they’ve had an exposure to will remain in quarantine and isolation during that time,” Coody-Anders said. “The integrated care team and the care navigator meet all their needs – academic, dining services, so forth and so on.”

The school has reserved spaces for 50 students with a positive COVID-19 test should they need to quarantine or isolate themselves.

“Beyond 50, we start to get into what we consider a yellow zone, where we might need to start making decisions about reducing certain operations,” Coody-Anders added.

All of this planning and testing can be an expensive endeavor. Trinity is drawing on its rainy day fund and adjusting its operating budgets. Officials are taking special care to not dip into the school’s endowment to weather the pandemic.

Even though contact tracing and testing was one of the biggest public health crisis-related expenditures , the cost was important for Trinity to take on.

“[Widespread testing] continues to be the gold standard for us,” she said.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.