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Universities in Colorado have far lower COVID positivity rate on campus than the rest of the state

Vaccine mandates, testing, contact tracing and masks are all helping keep transmission low on campuses.

DENVER — We know how COVID spreads, and you might think it would spread wildly on college campuses where people are always together. And yet, universities and colleges in Colorado are showing the rest of the state that containing COVID is possible.

"We do 9,000 to 10,000 tests a week. Everyone is on a regular testing schedule," Sarah Watamura, the chair of the psychology department at the University of Denver and the university’s COVID Response Coordinator, said. "By doing that, we’re able to feel really confident that we have the situation under control."

The University of Denver has some of the strictest COVID protocols of any school in the state. Even with a 97% vaccination rate, students and staff are required to test regularly and wear masks indoors.

Of the more than 9,000 tests processed at the university in the past week, only .32% have come back positive. Compare that with the rest of the state. The positivity rate around Colorado this week is at 8.9%.

Because students and staff have to swipe into every building, contact tracing becomes easier, as well, and is much quicker than any contact tracing still happening outside the campus gates.

"We trace a positive case in about an hour," said Watamura. "If you do not follow your required testing schedule, if you test positive or are otherwise not compliant with our protocols, you will not be able to access buildings. Your badge will not work."

Across town at Metropolitan State University of Denver, vaccinations are required, but 10% of students have submitted exemptions. They’re the only ones who are required to get tested. Larry Sampler is the chief operating officer at the university, where the positivity rate over the past week is at just 1.7%.

"If you are vaccinated you do not have to be tested every week," said Sampler. "If you are vaccinated there are more liberties than if you’re not vaccinated, but we want everyone to feel welcome on the campus whether they have a vaccine or not."

Sampler says a lot of the success in stopping the spread of COVID on campus has come from people's willingness to adhere to the strict policies. Ninety percent of students and 98% of staff are vaccinated. 

"I think around the beginning of the year we became pretty confident we could do this. It was just a question of how it would look and how the community would comply," said Sampler. 

While all the biggest universities in the state require COVID vaccines, not all of them have as strict protocols as the University of Denver. At the University of Colorado (CU), the vaccination rate is at 94%, but the people who got exemptions are not required to get tested. CU has done just under 6,000 tests since the beginning of August. The positivity rate is low, but there’s not a huge sample size.

On campuses across the state, there are protocols that keep the COVID transmission low. Outside, it’s hard to notice any restrictions at all.

"We started out in a position where people were very concerned about college campuses driving the virus," said Watamura. "This year it is very clear that college campuses are a way that we can help contain the spread of the virus because of the protocols we’re able to put in place."

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