College and Coronavirus Are Not a Great Mix

Preventing the spread of Covid-19 on college campuses has been a difficult task. Even universities that have laid out comprehensive plans for college students, including widespread testing and contract tracing plans, have struggled with outbreaks. There are now over 88,000 cases of Covid-19 at over 1,190 colleges and universities. The new coronavirus hot spots appear to be college towns.

Many colleges gave it the old college try: Bloomberg recently outlined the ways that University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, seemingly did everything right, from using researchers at the university to develop a saliva test to be taken by students twice a week to developing an app that alerts students if they’ve been in contact with anyone who tested positive for Covid-19. Even so, in a period of 10 days there were 784 positive cases that emerged, and estimates suggested that if the trend continued there could be 8,000 cases during the semester. The school is now testing “higher-risk people,” like students who live in fraternities, three times a week and has a new team to help students who test positive isolate.

As the New York Times reported this week, at least eight colleges have canceled in-person classes due to virus outbreaks while others are trying to “power through” the pandemic. “The University of Alabama and the University of Georgia have continued to hold in-person classes despite more than a thousand positive cases of coronavirus at each school,” the Times writes.

There’s an ongoing blame game happening over who is at fault. Is it that universities were not prepared for how quickly Covid would spread? Is it the college students who are deciding to party at college?

“Outbreaks in schools, and college campuses, were to be expected given that we do not have strong community-level control over transmission in all parts of our country at this time,” says Abraar Karan, MD, an internal medicine doctor at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, adding that there’s extra risk given that students were going to be flying in from all over the U.S. and would have contact with their surrounding communities outside of college.

Much like the concern over K-12 schooling, bringing people together in-person is difficult to achieve if local transmission is not under control. A major issue for colleges is that they cannot control where a student is coming from or what the transmission levels are in their surrounding community.

So what’s to be done? For one thing, Dr. Anthony Fauci says colleges need to let students stay in place now that they’ve brought them on campus. Reports of colleges sending sick students home has concerned many public health experts due to the risk of starting outbreaks elsewhere. “It’s the worst thing you could do,” Fauci recently told NBC’s Today show. “When you send them home, particularly when you’re dealing with a university where people come from multiple different locations, you could be seeding the different places with infection.”

“I do think that if students are infected and then sent home, it certainly can pose a big challenge to families who may have elderly and more vulnerable members who are now possibly exposed given the challenge of controlling home-based transmission,” Karan agrees. But if a school or university feels like they no longer have control of the outbreaks “then the answer is right there,” he says.

“To stop transmission, learning would have to be moved back to largely online avenues until the outbreak was stopped; and strategies would have to be tailored to exactly how that transmission was actually happening,” he says. Contract tracing and epidemiological investigations could help but need to happen quickly.

For now there’s not a clear-cut strategy for all colleges to implement. But there are a few learnings: Think about how to prevent off-campus transmission, isolate sick students but do not send them home, try to implement contact tracing or investigations of where outbreaks are happening, and if a school loses control or can’t seem to get ahead of rising case counts it is time to go online-only.

A real-time resource for news, advice, and commentary brought to you by Medium.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store