Public health experts say the initiative is the most ambitious program of its type in the country and could be a model for other universities. U.C. Davis has made free coronavirus tests — twice weekly, with overnight results — available to all 69,500 people in the city of Davis and hundreds of nonresidents who just work there.
It has also trained dozens of graduate students to help with contact tracing; recruited hotel and apartment owners to provide free isolation and quarantine housing to anyone in town exposed to the virus; and hired some 275 undergraduate ambassadors to combat health disinformation and hand out free masks.
Funded by major philanthropic donations, state and federal grants and CARES Act money, the program, projected to cost up to $38 million, has caught more than 850 potential outbreaks in Davis since it got underway shortly before Thanksgiving, according to Brad H. Pollock, who chairs the university’s department of public health sciences and directs the project.
Students make up roughly a third of the population in Davis. As they have dispersed to study remotely, the campus and the town have not only suffered financial losses but also been drained of much of their life force. Bars are closed. Streets are still. Hotels, bereft of parents and conferences, are generating little in bed taxes.
“I know the university felt it needed to get this right to be able to open up,” Ms. Partida said. “But for the community — this is the key to us getting back to normalcy.”
Though vaccines have begun to roll out, epidemiologists say playbooks like the one in Davis — masks, distance, hygiene and, in particular, cheap, rapid tests to detect cases quickly — may be the only way to reopen schools and businesses in the near term until the nation achieves herd immunity.
Some schools last year used aggressive testing and tracing to bring students back into residence halls and classrooms, but their protocols typically stopped at the campus boundaries. Testing was so costly, slow and hampered by shortages of processing reagents that medical labs strained just to meet the demand at the universities.
Meanwhile, many students returned to their college towns even if they were not planning to live in the dorms, either because they could not break pre-pandemic leases or because they preferred not to study remotely from their parents’ homes.
“We’ve taken some 850 people off the street who were walking around, asymptomatic,” Dr. Pollock said. “Every infection caught prevents, like, three more infections. And for every one of those three, three more get prevented, and so on. That has to make a difference, right?”
Outside the test center, Mr. Duey, a web developer, said twice-weekly testing had made it possible for his 14-year-old son, Bowen, to spend time with friends from school and to attend remote classes in masks in each others’ backyards. It also enabled his wife, a nurse practitioner, to quickly isolate after she became infected in December.
Ms. Hayes, 71, and her wife, Paula Ash, 70, who were getting tested in advance of a vaccine appointment, said they had seen TV ads about the free tests produced by the university and had come at the behest of their daughter, a local teacher. Dr. Pham, a family physician who had already gotten the vaccine, saw the screenings as a way for her teenage sons to finally visit their grandparents, whom they have not seen in months.
“Hey, better safe than sorry,” said Marc Hicks, 54, a school district employee whose infection was caught in November three days before he experienced symptoms. The lead time, he said, enabled him to notify his supervisor at work and made it possible for contact tracers to identify people he might have infected. He still comes in every week, he said, because he cannot be sure whether he is immune or not.