Oct 16, 2020 - Health

How colleges have learned to combat the coronavirus

Illustration of a diploma with a Coronavirus seal

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Some colleges are creating a blueprint for how to safely remain open during the coronavirus pandemic, relying heavily on regular testing and doing what they can to curb parties and other large gatherings.

Why it matters: College reopenings were tied to several big outbreaks, and young adults will likely be among the last to receive a coronavirus vaccine. So colleges and students need figure out how to live amid the virus.

How it works: Basic health measures, especially testing and contact tracing, have been the key to colleges' successes.

  • "The amount of money colleges and universities will spend on testing is likely to dwarf every projection we would have made a few months ago," Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, told NPR.

Yes, but: More than 2 out of every 3 colleges offering in-person classes don’t have a clear testing plan or are only testing high-risk students, per an NPR analysis. Many experts say that isn’t enough to prevent outbreaks.

  • Among schools with in-person classes and more than 5,000 undergraduates, only 25% are doing surveillance testing, and only 6% are regularly testing all students.
  • And testing is almost meaningless if students ignore the results of their tests, as some did at the University of Illinois, or throw social distancing guidelines out the window.

The big picture: “We weren’t able to do this as a country, but it’s totally doable in the university context,” Vanderbilt University Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said.

Zoom in: At Vanderbilt, the majority of classes are in-person, and spread of the virus has been minimal.

  • The university had the benefit early on of in-house experts and good connections with Nashville’s public health system, Diermeier said. Undergraduate students have mandatory weekly testing.
  • Early on, the school used positive messaging — rather than threats — to encourage students to behave responsibly, and it hasn’t had any problems so far with parties or large gatherings.
  • “This is the biggest challenge we’ve had since the second World War…and we’re not asking them to storm the beaches of Normandy,” Diermeier said. “Our focus was, make this our proudest moment.”

The University of Arizona saw a spike of 880 positive tests in one week in mid-September, but has since been able to bring that number down to 18 this past week, partially via a two-week shelter-in-place policy.

  • It’s bringing more students back on campus now in waves.
  • Even though the university put in place innovative public health measures from the beginning, some students were “partying like it’s 1999,” as President Robert Robbins put it, and the university has since partnered with law enforcement and other community partners to crack down on these parties.
  • “Whatever we’re doing, we’ve gotten everybody’s attention,” Robbins said.

The university uses wastewater testing to detect the virus within dorms, and is testing between 6,000 and 8,000 students and employees a week. Robbins said he hopes to be able to test every person on campus daily by January.

  • It also has a contact tracing app that students are encouraged to use, but Robbins said he plans to mandate its use next semester. The school also ensured that students in isolation had the wraparound services they needed.

The bottom line: Containing the virus hasn’t been cheap or easy for the colleges that have managed to do it. But the alternative — widespread deferrals or dropouts — is likely worse.

  • “I think the idea that we can just wait this out for a year and a half, for universities, that seems like a very bad idea to me,” Diermeier said.
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