Illustration of road signs pointing in different directions

Credit: Donovan Collins | For The Lantern

COVID-19 reared its head on college campuses across all 50 states, but there is no national standard for universities to report its effects.

As of Sept. 10, more than 88,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported across more than 1,190 college campuses in the U.S., the New York Times reported. Many colleges and universities assembled COVID-19 dashboards displaying data such as test positivity rates, cumulative case numbers and the availability of quarantine and isolation housing on campus.

Ohio State’s dashboard has this information and more, including data for daily cases, hospital capacity and transmission rates for both Ohio and Franklin County. Dr. Andy Thomas, chief clinical officer at the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State, said contact tracers and leaders in the College of Public Health are analyzing transmission data specific to campus. 

“As you contact trace, you try to determine how many people were infected from any one person,” Thomas said. “You want to try to keep your [transmission rate] to one or less than one, which means that we’re effectively isolating and quarantining people.” 

Ohio State’s dashboard also breaks down cumulative cases and positivity rates by on- and off-campus students. Data can be viewed cumulatively, as a seven-day average or a single-day average. The dashboard also includes the availability of personal protective equipment and compliance with enhanced cleaning requirements in classrooms, common spaces and high-touch areas and residence halls.

Some universities provide additional metrics. West Virginia University, for example, requires students and staff tested outside of the university system to self-report positive cases that are displayed on the dashboard dating back to July 21. 

“This allows us to conduct effective contact tracing on campus, when the result could have been reported elsewhere, and helps to verify the needs to quarantine or isolate per the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines,” Dr. Carmen Burrell, medical director of Urgent Care and Student Health Services at West Virginia University, said in an email.It also allows us to provide any helpful resources to the students or staff when needed.” 

Yale University posts a visual “Current Yale COVID-19 Alert Level” banner at the head of its dashboard. According to the website, the alert level ranges from green to red, indicating the severity of risk COVID-19 presents to campus. Each alert level outlines “what to expect” on campus. For example, under the red alert level, instruction may shift fully online with students expected to stay in their assigned rooms. At the time of publication, Yale is at alert level “Yellow: Low to Moderate Risk.”

The University of Mississippi reports a “contact coefficient,” which is the average number of close contacts of each positive case. This metric is similar to the transmission rate but only accounts for contact, not confirmed transmission of the virus. Like the transmission rate, the contact coefficient is calculated through contact tracing. The University of Mississippi’s current contact coefficient is 1.90.

Some universities use apps to contact trace. The University of Arizona “Covid Watch” app allows students to input their positive test result and notifies other app users when they come in close proximity with a person who is positive. The app uses Bluetooth to measure an exposed individual’s “risk level” depending on the length and distance of contact and recommended next steps ranging from monitoring for symptoms to self-quarantining.

A number of universities, including the University of Texas at Austin, Harvard University and Arkansas State University, implemented similar apps to assist in contact tracing, but Covid Watch is the first fully anonymous tracing technology that does not require personal data or location tracking, according to the University of Arizona website.

Although many colleges and universities actively release campus COVID-19 data, not all have announced a threshold for shutting down campus in the event of a serious outbreak.

Earlham College, a liberal arts college in Richmond, Indiana, will most likely require students to leave campus and return home if its positivity rate reaches 5 percent, Brian Zimmerman, director of media relations for the college, said. 

About 600 students attend classes on campus at Earlham this semester, Zimmerman said. Given its positivity rate threshold, 35 positive cases could shut down the campus. Zimmerman said the threshold was established based on the limited capacity of quarantine and isolation housing on the small campus.

“It’s based on physical space for us,” Zimmerman said. “We only have so many empty dorm rooms, so many buildings, so many places to put students in in a way that would obviously protect the rest of the student body while also making sure that we can support students and get them healthy.”

Ohio State’s quarantine and isolation beds are at 63.7 percent capacity with 524 beds available at the time of publication, according to Ohio State’s COVID-19 dashboard. Quarantine housing is for people who have been exposed to a disease, and isolation is for people who are sick with the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thomas said Ohio State monitors multiple metrics in order to inform decisions. He said these multiple measures come together to determine if the university can control the spread of the virus at its current level through contact tracing and quarantine and isolation.

“Much like a lot of complex situations, there’s not any one number that drives it,” Thomas said.

Thomas said the daily positivity rates entering the second week of classes worried him as the overall student positivity rate reached 6.7 percent, but the current downward trend put him more at ease.

If the COVID-19 numbers were to begin trending up among students, faculty and staff on campus, Thomas said there are many steps the university can take in order to maintain control of spread before taking more drastic measures, like de-densifying residence halls or transitioning to fully virtual instruction, are necessary. 

But he said if the university community continues to follow social distancing guidelines and other policies to limit the spread of the coronavirus, those measures won’t need to be implemented.

“It’s been the students here, the faculty, the staff that are taking this seriously, that I think are going to be the real success story of making sure that we now are going to get to a point where we can maintain the rest of the semester safely and then return back with even a better understanding,” Thomas said.