By Mike Blake and Steve Gorman
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) -The University of California's San Diego campus has launched the winter academic term with a unique twist to its coronavirus safety regimen: newly installed vending machines stocked with do-it-yourself COVID-19 tests for students.
The 11 dispensers at UC San Diego since Jan. 2 - with nine more to be added over the next week or two - are the first of their kind to be introduced on a college or university campus in the United States, according to school officials.
Adapted from conventional vending machines, the systems aim to make it easier and less costly to regularly screen the school's student body.
All 10,000 students living on campus, accounting for about a quarter of the school's total enrollment, are required to be tested at least once a week, up from once every two weeks last quarter, university officials said.
The test kits are free and can be obtained from the machines with the swipe of a university ID card. Students then swab their own nostrils and deposit the sample for collection and analysis by one of two on-campus laboratories.
Results are usually returned within 12 to 24 hours, UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla told Reuters on Tuesday as he showed off one of the machines at an indoor campus food court.
"They're an amazing innovation - simple, effective and impactful," he said of the machines, which have dispensed thousands of tests a day since they began operation.
Students may otherwise avail themselves of testing provided at any of a half-dozen walk-up or drive-through sites on campus.
For anyone testing positive, the university has set up a 600-bed housing unit where infected students who are asymptomatic or suffering mild illness can recover in isolation until they are not contagious.
But the quarantine housing has so far been sparsely used. Fewer than 600 UC San Diego students have contracted COVID over the past 10 months, a university spokeswoman said.
All screenings are done using the highly sensitive polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests, which detect traces of viral genetic material.
UC San Diego also has the most advanced wastewater COVID testing program of any U.S. college, with sewage samples collected from campus housing sites scanned every 24 hours. The wastewater surveillance enables health officials to indirectly screen all students daily and detect potential outbreaks before they occur.
Despite its ambitious testing, the campus offers fewer than 10% of its winter undergraduate courses in person, using outdoor classrooms under special COVID safety restrictions in effect for educational programs within San Diego County. All other undergraduate courses are conducted remotely.
(Reporting by Mike Blake in San Diego; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles. Editing by Gerry Doyle)