It's Too Early To Tell Where 'Problem' Campuses Will Be, Says Public Health Expert | WGLT

It's Too Early To Tell Where 'Problem' Campuses Will Be, Says Public Health Expert

Sep 17, 2020

Comparing colleges’ COVID-19 numbers can be tricky because of the variety of approaches to testing and reporting data. A lot of Midwestern college campuses bear watching, though.

Cheng-Chia “Brian” Chen, an associate professor of public health at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS), is tasked with monitoring the coronavirus situation at his institution. In March, Chen joined the Sangamon County Board of Health and the UIS COVID-19 Response Team.

Chen said it’s too early to tell what “successful” mitigation looks like, but there are standards that universities can strive to meet.

“I think the ultimate goal for a successful mitigation of COVID-10 is that all infected people or students can be properly treated, isolated and quarantined until they have two consecutive PCR tests within 24 hours with negative results,” Chen said. “That means we have concrete (data) that they will be no harm to the community.”

Chen said it’s a dynamic process to reach that goal. He offered some key strategies universities should keep in mind: data-driven early detection of infections on campus, proper penalties for breaking COVID-19 rules and defined metrics that trigger scaling back operations.

That means testing—a lot and often—and identifying concrete numbers that would force full remote learning or a campus-wide quarantine, he said.

At UIS for example, all students, faculty and staff must participate in weekly COVID-19 testing. The university’s “target” metrics that would trigger new restrictions include a positivity rate of over 1% (daily and seven-day rolling), more than two new cases in a single day or three consecutive days of increased cases.

Chen acknowledged these standards may be easier to maintain on the UIS campus because it’s much smaller than other schools, even within the U of I system.

To date, UIS has conducted nearly 7,000 COVID-19 tests. The campus has just over 4,000 students enrolled this fall. The campus’s testing positivity rate sits at 0.17%.

Illinois State University, which enrolled more than 20,000 students this fall, has conducted just over 8,000 tests. Its positivity rate is hovering just above 5%—down from a record 24% during an outbreak a couple weeks prior. More than 1,300 students are known to have contracted the virus.

But Chen said comparing the two campuses might be fruitless.

“I don’t think it’s just like gymnastics in the Olympics—that the fewer cases could be considered ‘number one,’” he said. “If we only look at the numbers, I don’t think it’s fair for those universities with higher populations and with more COVID-19 risks.”

Chen said what makes sense is looking at colleges with a similar student body, as well as physical area where the risk of COVID-19 spread is similar. Most Big 10 schools, for example, have a flagship campus with around 40,000 students. Chen said they face similar challenges—dealing with  things likeGreek life and huge student lecture halls.

And they’re also seeing more COVID-19 positive students. For example, Chen said, Notre Dame recently mandated a two-week quarantine for students. Now, they’re seeing a plummet in positive cases.

Chen stresses colleges that emerged early as leaders in positive COVID-19 tests may not end the year that way.

“The stage right now is probably just at the beginning of the game. Some of the schools make less rigorous efforts. Who knows if, eventually, they end up with so many cases? We don’t know at this point," he said. "Some of the schools have already had 10% of infected students, but they still [stick with] in-person classes. It will probably take another 10 or 12 weeks—or the end of the fall semester—then we will probably have a better idea of ‘this strategy worked and that strategy didn’t work.’”

Chen said other factors that might improve a university's COVID-19 outcome is collaborating with local health authorities, running a public health education campaign and rallying support for safety initiatives from students.

While waiting to see, he said, universities should air on the side of caution.

“If we don’t know enough about the virus, why not just go for stricter policies?” Chen said. “I understand that would be really challenging for some universities, because there’s so much money and resources involved in that. It’s really challenging to come up with a concrete prediction model of which way is the best way to use money, or to use prevention strategies to have the best results.”

Still, Chen said, he's concerned that universities like Illinois State that haven't defined criteria for when to scale back operations are playing a dangerous waiting game.

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