UC San Diego Delivers 65,000 COVID Tests a Month Via Vending Machine

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The pandemic is changing everything in higher education. How can institutions use their resources to help keep their communities safe?

Brett Pollak, Director of Workplace Technology Services at UC San Diego, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about using vending machines to create a self-administration protocol for 65,000 COVID tests a month this spring.

UC San Diego’s Return to Learn Plan

Once institutional leaders realized the pandemic will change the shape of how UCSD delivers education for some time, the chancellor set a lofty goal, asking:

How could we leverage the unique brainpower at UC San Diego to implement a comprehensive plan to safely bring students back to the campus? 

The team at UCSD looked at multifaceted approaches based on scientific models developed to identify and minimize exposure to the virus.

As Brett explained, “If we can ensure those on the campus are free from the virus, that’ll put us in a better position to begin a safe return to some level of in-person activities.”

So, the school laid out a plan. Over the summer, they tested 5,000 students residing on campus as an introduction. Then, they scaled up to accommodate the periodic testing of a population 10-15 times that size. 

Project teams quickly formed to carry out the planning and implementation of a support structure for a walk-up-and-test-yourself program.  

“We had daily meetings with each of the site points of contact,” Brett said. “The lab staff went over what worked, what didn’t work, and how we could improve and streamline the process.”

As UCSD began to scale up for the fall, they realized the remote testing sites were difficult to operationalize, so they commandeered the central Price Center ballroom and transformed that into a COVID testing center. 

In subsequent phases, UCSD launched other initiatives. One of those initiatives was deploying wastewater testing receptacles on top of manhole covers and other sewage collection sites. From these, the team can detect traces of the virus and based on the sewage flow, determine which buildings are initiating the signal. Email notices then go out to the residents in those buildings, letting them know a positive detection occurred.

UCSD also piloted the California Notify mobile technology that assists with contact tracing efforts. This technology uses individuals’ mobile Bluetooth signals to determine if they were in close proximity to infected individuals for a substantial period of time. 

People who test positive receive a key they can put into their phone. Then secure messaging is initiated to individuals they’ve in close contact with, letting them know they’ve potentially been exposed to the virus. That program has gone statewide. 

Vending Machine COVID Testing

To make this spring work safely, UCSD needs to process about 65,000 COVID tests a month. New vending machines across campus are helping make that happen. 

“Classes started this week,” Brett said, “and the vending machines were deployed over the holiday break. We’ve got a total of 11 deployed, with additional vending machines coming online over the next couple weeks. I was just checking the stats, and yesterday we had just north of 2,000 people self-administer tests using the vending machines.”

UCSD is planning for some machines to come online at the outskirts of campus next, so staff members can quickly self-administer a COVID test and get the results within 24 hours.

How the Technical Integration Across Campus Works

In the initial planning, the vending machines included not just COVID tests, but also other PPE equipment, including masks, shields, and gloves. But because UCSD wanted to move from biweekly to weekly testing for on-campus students and staff in January, they focused on supplying them solely with COVID tests to begin with. Over the summer and into the fall, the team piloted adding barcode scanning functionality to the UCSD mobile app, which allowed students to log in and scan test kits to associate their test kit with their identity. 

Prior to this, the school pre-assigned test kits to individuals, but they knew this wouldn’t scale to the campus-wide model they envisioned. An app was better. Students got it right away. Staff members needed a few minutes to get the hang of it.

Here’s how the process works:

  1. The individual retrieves the test kit out of the vending machine, logs into the UCSD app, scans the kit, self-administers the nasal swab test, and drops it into the collection bin. 
  2. The logistics team retrieves the kits and returns them to the lab on campus. 
  3. Once the lab processes the test, the student or staff member gets a notification on their MyChart app, letting them know about the result. 
  4. If they have a positive test, campus contact tracing efforts kick in. Students living on campus, for instance, get moved to an isolated dorm set aside for these purposes. 

Some students, such as scholar athletes, must test weekly. They receive a daily email reminder four days after each test. Those that haven’t given themselves a test in nine days get more intensive communication.

“We’re just making sure that people are following the rules and we’re doing the right thing to make sure that we’re keeping the campus as safe as we can,” Brett said.

Next Steps for Creating New COVID Testing Solutions on Campus

UCSD holds a distinctive position of having a medical center and a top-tier research lab as part of the family, so many institutions couldn’t just mimic this school’s model. Some other universities, however, are doing similar things. Others have outsourced the program to a third party. 

Whatever initiative a university ends up deciding to use, the people implementing it need to make sure there’s buy-in from the top. That’s what helps coordinate the efforts amongst all the departments that need to support the program. 

This post is based on a podcast interview with Brett Pollak of UC San Diego. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.