BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) – Students are moving back to LSU this week and the campus has some unique ways they are keeping track of the spread of COVID. On top of routine testing and reporting vaccination status, the university is testing wastewater from on-campus residences.

The wastewater testing method has already been successful for LSU over the last year in isolating outbreaks during the spring and summer semesters in order to keep the spread from getting worse.

Once a week wastewater from on-campus housing will be collected to see how prevalent COVID is in the 6,800 residents. The lab can find how many copies of the virus are in the water to get a rough estimate of how many people in the building are infected. Then they decide if a medical team needs to go in and test the residents the normal way.

“There’s no discrimination with testing in that situation,” President Dr. William Tate said. “Everybody in that dorm, for example, would test and we would determine whether or not they have COVID and we would assist them further in that.”

With the weekly testing, the school hopes to prevent more than about 10-15 people in a residence hall from getting the virus.

“You’d have to go test 500 people or you have to use another method of tracing,” said John Pardue, an Elizabeth Howell Stewart Professor of Civil Engineering. “What wastewater allows you to do is to look at a larger group of people and determine not who individually has the virus, but in that larger group of people how many people have the virus.”

The idea is not a new one, it is used around the world to keep track of outbreaks of other diseases in a community. President Tate said it could serve as a model for other schools around the country. The university has been using wastewater testing since last fall and they’ve helped the parish keep track of outbreaks.

“We can tell because we’ve been testing East Baton Rouge Parish, we know what a high number is. So what we can do with that information is we know what our trigger level is and if we see that trigger level we know there’s a lot of disease in the dorm and we can effectively go in,” Pardue said.

Students had to report their vaccination status or get tested before returning to campus, so the school hopes the early numbers will be low. As of Monday, 87 students and 29 employees were positive for COVID. The university understands there is a lot of transmission in the community so they want to stay on top of the spread.

New this year there will be an online dashboard where people can look up where the outbreaks are happening around campus. That is expected to be up and running in the next week.

So far 11,256 students and 4,629 staff have reported being fully vaccinated. Right now the COVID vaccine is not mandated by the university. President Tate said it will be added to the immunization requirements after it receives full FDA approval. Students can still opt out of the vaccine under state law, but they will be subject to regular testing.