UO researchers test buildings for COVID-19

A team of researchers at the University of Oregon has found that testing buildings helps detect a possible outbreak before it happens.

Posted: Jul 24, 2020 7:04 PM

EUGENE, Ore. -- A team of researchers at the University of Oregon has found that testing buildings helps detect a possible outbreak before it happens. 

Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg and his team at the university are among those developing the innovative approach, and they showed ABC News how they're testing buildings on campus -- they swab surfaces and air ducts and take air samples too. 

"We can't test every person every day, but we can test every building every day. In addition, buildings are being tested and results arrive in 24 hours and can help guide actions the next day or building operations, controls or contact tracing," said Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, director at the university's Institute for the Health and the Built Environment. 

By testing air ducts, air particles and surfaces, researchers believe they can identify places where there has been exposure and if the building puts the public at risk.

Researchers said if the virus is detected in a building, there are various mitigating factors that can be used to limit the spread like increasing filtration, disinfecting surfaces or targeted human testing.

The director told KEZI 9 News this testing should give a lot of people hope. 

"We all need a little bit of hope during this time so this approach can strike that balance and sort of thread the needle between saving lives and restoring livelihoods and I think that's the key," he said. 

Experts think the technology could also help keep people at senior living facilities safe and mitigate outbreaks.

Enviral Tech, a biotechnology company, found the virus on three surfaces inside a Springs Living facility in Lake Oswego, Oregon. One of those contaminated surfaces was an employee time clock, which told the facility they had an employee likely infected with COVID-19.

"It was a great detective story and offered us five days advance warning before any of the employees that tested positive actually showed symptoms," said Brenda Connelly, a nurse and the chief operating officer at The Springs Living.

"It helps give us piece of mind. It's one more tool we have in fighting this war against the invisible enemy," Fee Stubblefield, Founder and CEO of The Springs Living, said.

Not only did the testing help them find the virus and mitigate an outbreak but also caused them to take a deeper look at their cleaning methods. 

"We had gone in and had commercial cleaners come into that community and we went in there and surface tested it as a control method and we detected COVID after it was cleaned. So we had them come back, we tested again and there were still trace amounts of COVID. It took us three times to get COVID out of the community," Stubblefield said. 

It is important to note The Springs at Greer Gardens in Eugene has not had any known positive cases of COVID-19. 

Researchers said this type of technology is in various stages of piloting, including at the University of Oregon. 

"We think we can more than offset the expense of other mitigation strategies by targeting the effort. And then of course the price of making a mistake in this situation is innumerable so we think this is a worthwile investment," Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg said. 

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