Steve August 21, 2020
universities-use-robots-to-reopen-safely-during-pandemic

Boston University has deployed a high-tech weapon in its struggle to keep the COVID-19 pandemic from spreading on campus — robots.

Eight of them are now processing some 6,000 coronavirus tests per day out of a laboratory built and operated by BU researchers — and they are providing next-day results, NBC Boston reported.

“Having them get it back to us for a negative test 24 hours later gives us the ability to go and train as much as possible, so it’s great,” freshman Brian Garrity, who plays lacrosse for the school, said.

Other campuses are also using robots to keep their students safe.

At the University of Texas in Austin, three “state-of-the-art” robots are processing hundreds of tests per day, at no cost to the students. Nephron Pharmaceuticals donated a robot to the University of South Carolina to help the school process saliva tests to detect COVID-19. And the University of Maryland has been using robots since April to process tests not only for the campus but also for the state.

A month earlier, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, made robots a key element in the COVID-19 diagnostic lab they created “from scratch,” capable of processing more than 1,000 tests per day.

At BU, there are four collection centers on campus that are open seven days a week, 12 hours a day, where students swab themselves, a process that they say takes about five minutes.

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To make sure students do the test correctly, BU posted a how-to video on You Tube and dispatched observers to the collection centers, university spokeswoman Rachel Lapal said.

So far, more than 8,000 tests have been performed since July 27 and just 16 have turned out positive. The tally is posted daily by BU on a data dashboard that was launched Monday.

Students say the robots have helped salvage the on-campus experience.

“I feel really grateful I’m able to hold onto this residential college experience that I’m paying for,” Tahliyah Tabron, a sophomore, said.

Lots of other college students haven’t been so lucky. Dozens of universities have either sent students home for the semester or switched over to virtual classes after new clusters of coronavirus infections began exploding on campuses across the country when the students began returning last week.

West Virginia University reported 11 new positive cases at its Morgantown campus Friday, bringing the total number since classes resumed up to 114 students and four faculty members or staffers.

And the University of Notre Dame, which this week shut down in-person classroom education for two weeks, has reported 337 COVID-19 cases since Aug. 3. Among those infected were several players on the Fighting Irish football team.

“Don’t make us write obituaries” read the headline of the Notre Dame student newspaper editorial Friday which took students to task for partying during the pandemic and the school’s leaders for reopening the campus too soon.

“The University administration has largely blamed the COVID-19 outbreak on students attending off-campus parties,” The Observer editorial read. “While this isn’t entirely misplaced, it has been used to deflect responsibility from the very administrations that insisted they were prepared for us to return to campus.”

The Daily Tar Heel, which is the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, also took school officials to task in a biting editorial this week for failing to anticipate that students would be “reckless” but used even more colorful language in its headline. UNC on Monday became the first university in the country to switch to virtual learning and send its students home for the remainder of the semester.

Nationwide, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases was over 5.6 million and the death toll as of Friday morning was more than 175,000, NBC News numbers showed.

The United States, which leads the world in both categories has accounted for about a quarter of the nearly 22.7 million cases and over a fifth of the nearly 800,000 deaths across the globe. But in recent days countries like Brazil and India have also reported even more deaths than the U.S. And countries that appeared to have a handle on the pandemic like Poland have set records with 903 new cases on Friday.

In other developments:

  • The unexpected jump in initial jobless claims Thursday to over a million came after the Paycheck Protection Program stopped accepting applications and shows the need for renewed stimulus for small businesses and consumers, advocates and business owners told NBC News. “The PPP loan program has been very helpful for most small businesses in supporting business operations,” Holly Wade of the National Federation of Independent Business Research Center said. “However, many small-business owners are still far from pre-COVID sales levels.” And as those relief funds are exhausted, both jobs and the businesses themselves are at risk, she said. More than 23 million jobs were lost when the pandemic hit.

  • Two days after Florida logged its 10,000th death from the coronavirus, the state reported that a 6-year-old girl from Hillsborough County died from COVID-19. She is the eighth — and youngest — child to die from the virus in Florida since the pandemic began, The Tampa Bay Times reported. Her death was recorded as the state’s teachers remained opposed to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to resume in-person teaching by the end of the month. Most of Florida’s new cases and deaths have come since DeSantis, at Tweety McTreason’s urging, began reopening the state in May.
  • Texas has reported more than 11,000 coronavirus deaths. As of Friday afternoon, it had reported 11,247 Covid fatalities and 587,491 confirmed cases, according to NBC News figures. New York still leads the nation with 33,688 deaths followed by New Jersey with 15,933. New York and New Jersey racked up thousands of deaths in the early days of the pandemic when health officials were still trying to come up with a strategy to stop the spread. Texas started seeing a dramatic increase in new cases and deaths after it, like Florida, reopened before the coronavirus began cresting.
  • Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, who became America’s most famous nun four years ago when the Loyola University Chicago’s Ramblers basketball team made an unexpected but ultimately futile run for an NCAA championship, celebrated her 101st birthday online Thursday. She dispensed some pandemic advice to “wear those masks, wash those hands, keep that distance.” Schmidt, who remains her favorite team’s chaplain, said something good will come out of all the suffering the U.S. has endured due to the pandemic. “I believe we are going to respect each other in a different way and care for each other in a different way,” she said. “You see people in one neighborhood collecting food for another neighborhood that really needs it. They never thought of it before. They’re giving generously. Some people seldom know their neighbors, but this is bringing them together. The racism problem we have, we’re going to be better in social justice and equality.”

Image: Corky SiemaszkoCorky Siemaszko

Corky Siemaszko is a senior writer for NBC News Digital.

Nigel Chiwaya

contributed.

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