A graduate student carrying out research at the University of Guelph tested positive for COVID-19 just days after his time on campus ended in June, according to an email seen by GuelphWire on Thursday that was later confirmed by the institution.
“The student who was working in [a room] noticed symptoms on Sunday June 14th, was tested the next day and was found positive on June 17th,” wrote Lab Manager Phillip Watson in an email to the School of Engineering list.
The student’s last day in the lab was on June 10, Watson adds, explaining that this would put the student outside the timeframe for communicability. The student tested negative on June 12, before they experienced symptoms.
“The possibility that the student transmitted the disease to anyone in the [School of Engineering] is very low and no further action is required by us,” Watson concludes.
In a response to further inquiries from GuelphWire, the university said it was only “recently informed that a graduate student conducting approved, essential time-sensitive research on campus tested positive for COVID-19.”
Spokesperson Deirdre Healey said that Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health was consulted and completed a risk assessment of the case, as well as the university’s occupational health department.
The university also clarified that the student “reported symptoms on June 13” but emphasized that there was zero risk of the virus spreading across campus. It confirmed that the student’s last day on campus was June 10 but did not comment on the other dates in Watson’s email.
“Public Health determined that in this case there was no risk to anyone on the University campus,” Healey said in a statement.
Employees at the University of Guelph told GuelphWire that there is a staggered approach to their return to work, with some departments coming back at different times. Some are still at home.
But, for those who are asked to return to work on campus, the university has adopted the physical distancing requirements ordered by public health, including donning a face covering when it’s impossible to stay two metres away from another person, Healey explained.
“The University will continue to follow the guidelines from Public Health in maintaining a safe work environment.”
What was the student doing?
Though the name of the student was not revealed by the email or the university’s spokesperson, it was made clear they were working on time-sensitive research, for which the university has precautions for.
“All approved, essential, time-sensitive research projects have research management plans to ensure the safety of those involved,” Deirdre Healey said.
“These plans include maintaining a physical distance of two metres, ensuring low occupancy in research spaces, wearing a face covering, ensuring mandatory hygiene practices, including hand washing, cleaning and disinfecting of work areas after each shift and keeping record of research space use.”
The specific project the graduate student was working on was not named. However, the university has dedicated many of its resources, available staff and time to research on the novel coronavirus, which causes the sometimes fatal COVID-19 disease.
An engineering staff member told GuelphWire that there are a few different projects being studied in the engineering building right now.
“Most of the essential research is either ‘need to care for something that will die’ or ‘this will actively improve our covid response,’” they said.
“There’s not much in the ‘die’ column in engineering, especially not in my area, but we do have some people working on AI diagnosis and on contact tracing apps.”
In May, the university was awarded almost $700,000 across 51 research projects related to COVID-19.
In the School of Engineering, Dr. Kevin Keener is studying the use of cold plasma technology for use in sanitization.“Cold plasma, a partially ionized gas that is generated when an electric field is applied into a gas like the air, is a cost-effective promising approach to properly sanitizing and allow the reuse of PPE,” said the press release that announced the research funding.
The School of Engineering has three other COVID-19 related projects that started in May.
Dr. Christopher Collier is studying a method of detecting COVID-19 using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and microfluids, Dr.Petros Spachos is studying bluetooth on smartphones for use in contact tracing, and Dr. Eranga Ukwatta is studying AI enabled medical imaging to diagnose COVID-19 patients.
(Reporting by Jack Fisher, Eli Ridder)
(Note: Story was updated to remove the exact room number the student was working in on campus.)