USC tests nearly 27,000 students for COVID, yielding surprisingly low positivity rates

The rate has dropped to 0.44%, down from 3.6% at the beginning of the summer delta surge and well below the overall rate in Los Angeles County.

August 23, 2021 Minne Hong Ho

As students moved to campus for the start of classes, nearly 27,000 passed through USC Student Health’s “pop testing” sites at Jefferson Lot, Pardee Marks, Pappas Quad and the Eric Cohen Health Center.

To fulfill the Trojan Check requirements for weekly surveillance testing, students lined up at the sites for walk-ups and appointments online, filling the MySHR system to capacity and prompting a quick response to activate all nursing, medical assistant, clinical operations and even counseling and mental health volunteers to assist new students with the process.

Student positivity rates chart

With the high demand and compressed timeframe for the start of classes, the deadline for completing the first COVID-19 test for weekly surveillance testing was extended to Friday, Aug. 27. Saturday hours and evening hours (until 6:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday at Jefferson Lot) are available, and take-home kits are available for students to make faster “drop off” appointments (or walk-ups, if appointments are not available online). An on-site nasal swab option also begins this week.

Weekly testing figures released Monday morning showed a surprisingly low COVID-19 positivity rate: student positivity is at 0.44% — extremely low in comparison to the current Los Angeles County rate of 3.52%. In July, when the delta variant was beginning to create a summer surge, the COVID positivity rate for USC students was 3.6%.

USC student COVID positivity rate a useful tool

“Surveillance testing is valuable in that it helps us determine prevalence,” said Sarah Van Orman, chief health officer for USC Student Health and division chief of college health in the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “It allows us to better ‘capture and contain’ positive cases and swiftly move to contact tracing for individuals who may have had close contact with a positive case.” Close contact is defined as within 6 feet for a total of 15 minutes or longer within a 24-hour period. The physical distancing requirement is no longer in place by L.A. County, so classroom and activity density will vary at the university.

“Physical distancing is a good mitigation where possible, as is good ventilation and outdoor rather than indoor settings,” said Deona Willes, executive director of USC Environmental Health and Safety, “Our department regularly advises on mitigations for different programs and settings, whether it is workflow rearrangement, assessment of recommended PPE or other mitigations that can improve safety.”

N95 respirators available for voluntary use

To further promote a safe workplace, USC employees — regardless of vaccination status — may request an N95 respirator for voluntary use at no cost. Read the COVID-19 N95 Voluntary Use Guide Sheet for instructions on how to obtain one. Environmental Health and Safety has also developed best practices guides for the USC community to understand all personal, group and environmental measures that enhance safety.

“Vaccination, surveillance testing, contact tracing, symptom checks, universal indoor masking — these are all strong mitigations to keep our community safe,” Van Orman said. “We are doing extraordinarily well on vaccinations. More than 91% of all faculty, students, and staff are fully vaccinated and many others are in the process of getting their vaccinations at the Lyon Center right now, as they have arrived from countries where there is vaccine scarcity.”

“With today’s FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, we hope this will also encourage the broad communities who have not yet been vaccinated to consider getting their shot,” she added. “Our vaccination program continues weekly, along with the testing and contact tracing, and we will be continually reviewing data to adjust programs to keep our community safe.”

This report was updated Sept. 1, 2021, to reflect that all USC employees may request an N95 respirator regardless of their vaccination status.