University of South Florida


Environmental testing in residence halls a key element of USF’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts

Ana Hernandez taking environmental samples in a USF residence hall

Housing & Residential Education Assistant Vice President Ana Hernandez taking environmental testing samples inside a residence hall common area.

Every week, University of South Florida Housing & Residential Education (HRE) staff swab hundreds of high-touch areas across the university’s housing facilities. The effort is part of USF’s multi-faceted approach to monitoring and mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

With thousands of students living on the Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses, the need to test for the presence of the virus remains a crucial part of the university’s strategy. Along with requirements to complete the COVID-19 Daily Symptom Check and to participate in random COVID-19 testing, residential students will see HRE staff swabbing common areas around their halls in an attempt to identify the presence of the virus.

While COVID-19 can lead to serious health complications and has killed more than 210,000 people in the U.S., health experts say most of those infected will experience minor or no symptoms while they are ill. It’s these asymptomatic cases that make monitoring the virus particularly challenging and why USF’s COVID-19 Task Force decided to utilize environmental testing as a first step in tracking down asymptomatic carriers.

Swabbing a microwave for presence of COVID-19
Cleaning a table after swabbing it for COVID-19

After swabbing common areas for environmental testing purposes, HRE staff disenfect those areas as part of their enhanced cleaning protocols.

“Asymptomatic individuals may never even know they are infected,” said Donna Petersen, dean of the USF College of Public Health and chair of the COVID-19 Task Force. “But while they may not experience any symptoms, they can spread the virus and infect more vulnerable populations. Environmental testing is a critical component in early identification of these cases."

Since the start of the fall semester, HRE staff has conducted weekly environmental testing. Ana Hernandez, assistant vice president of Housing & Residential Education, says she and her staff take 75-100 samples per week across Tampa’s HRE facilities. Each sample typically consists of five to six different high-touch areas, including common-area doorknobs, light switches, elevator buttons and more.

In total, the Tampa campus has processed roughly 500 samples just within Housing & Residential Education. Of those tests, so far, they’ve seen only half a dozen samples containing COVID-19. In those cases, HRE identifies students who may have accessed those areas and refers them for further testing to identify any asymptomatic carriers. In addition to the Tampa campus, environmental testing recently started within Housing & Residential Education facilities on the St. Petersburg campus. It’s also being conducted throughout many other heavily trafficked spaces on USF’s campuses.

Swabbing an elevator button for COVID-19 testing

“For us, it’s really been about asking the question, ‘what else can we do to help promote safety?’,” Hernandez said. “Anything we can do that can help identify cases early and help us mitigate the spread of this virus are steps that we want to take. And this environmental testing is part of that.”

The testing is done in collaboration with Distinguished USF Health Professor Thomas Unnasch. Unnasch and his research team in the College of Public Health are able to process the environmental tests on campus and provide results and feedback directly to the HRE team.

“Throughout the whole pandemic, it has been incredible to be able to work with the talent here at USF,” Hernandez said. “Whether it’s our medical staff in Student Health Services or our public health researchers like Dr. Unnasch, we are able to react and respond quickly to support our students and make sure they are in a position to be successful in the classroom.”

To learn more about what USF is doing to promote safety, click here.

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