Austin City Council approves use of public parks, libraries for UT COVID-19 testing

Austin

The mobile rollout comes as some in-person classes resume next week

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The University of Texas will be taking COVID-19 testing off campus.

On Wednesday, Austin City Council members approved the university’s use of public parks and libraries for mobile testing. The university says they’re launching one site at Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity located at 2400 Leon Street this week.

Michael Godwin, program director for UT Proactive Community Testing, says they hope to add a second mobile unit during the week of Feb. 8 and a third clinic sometime in late February/early March as they’re able to onboard new testing staff.

“We’re currently finalizing a contract for the second location in the southern stretch of west campus. We are hoping to finalize a contract with the City of Austin Parks & Rec Department to operate in the E. Austin/E. Riverside areas for our third mobile unit,” Godwin wrote in an email to KXAN.

In city documents, Austin staff members pegged seven possible locations for UT: three public parks and four libraries.

Staff from Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department and Austin Public Library identified these possible locations for UT’s mobile testing sites (KXAN graphic)

Godwin says locations are chosen based on how many students live in the area and how prevalent COVID-19 may be there.

“We’ll go where there is most urgent need for frequent and sustained testing. The idea is to quickly adapt to changing conditions,” Godwin said.

He said the goal of the initiative is to meet students where they operate as most classes are still being held online. That’s helpful for students like Samantha Rucobo and her husband.

“It has been rough,” said Rucobo, who graduates from UT next May. “I feel like a lot of us felt last March, ‘it’s only going to last a month.'”

She and her husband haven’t stepped foot into a classroom there for nearly a year now. She says going to campus from their north Austin home for a COVID-19 test during the holidays was stressful.

“We don’t live on campus, so having to drive there and park — it was just like a big process,” Rucobo said.

“This photo was taking on March 6, 2020. The last time we were in campus without a mask,” said Rucobo. (Photo courtesy: Samantha Rucobo)

Rucobo also says increasing accessibility to testing helps ease her concerns with hybrid classes returning on Monday.

“My husband has hybrid,” she said. “It just makes me feel a little uncomfortable, because obviously I’m staying home, but then he’s like, on campus with people, and then he’s going to come home and then I’m like, ‘what if he gets me sick?'”

Rucobo says she sees herself and her husband taking advantage of the free resource to students.

“If I’m being exposed more regularly I most likely would,” she said.

Godwin said the COVID-19 tests will be the same as what they use on campus – saliva-based PCR tests.

“We’ll test as many as we’re able to see during the ~3- to 5-hour periods we’ll be at any given site,” Godwin wrote.

He says any UT student or employee will be able to walk up to the mobile testing sites; no appointment is needed.

He says participants can complete their electronic consent forms and symptom surveys through the Protect Texas Together app. He also says paper forms will available on-site.

On Friday, UT Health Austin Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Amy Young told us details like how they would deliver the tests are still being worked out.

“We have explored everything from [Chevy] Suburbans to golf carts, okay, so it’s some combination thereof,” Young said.

A spokesperson for UT says although hybrid classes are resuming on Monday, it won’t be a major change from where the university is right now. He says about 75% of classroom seats are online, about 5% are in person and 20% are hybrid. Hybrid means classes are a mix of online and in-person, set up for flexibility.

“So essentially, it’s a small portion of classes that can now resume as a mix of online and in-person vs. being fully online,” wrote spokesperson J.B. Bird in an email to KXAN.

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