How 5 universities tried to handle COVID-19 on campus

Fall semester was the start of a big experiment

One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we know the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads easily through large indoor gatherings and communal living spaces. A person can become infected, spread the virus to friends, family, teachers or coworkers, and then start exhibiting symptoms several days later — or never show any signs of infection.

With these kinds of risks, a college campus seems like one of the more dangerous places to spend time. In fact, U.S. counties with large colleges or universities that offered in-person instruction last fall saw a 56 percent rise in COVID-19 cases in the three weeks after classes began compared with the three weeks before. Counties with large schools that offered only remote learning saw a drop in cases of almost 18 percent, researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on January 8 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Universities that opened their campuses in August and September faced an uncharted, months-long experiment in infection control. They had no manual, no surefire way to keep students and staff from getting sick.

Science News took a look at five universities that opened in the fall. Each school cobbled together some type of testing at various frequencies coupled with uneven rules about wearing masks and public gatherings.

For testing, all five schools used polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests, which are the gold standard for diagnosing COVID-19. Results can take days, however, when demand for tests is high (SN Online: 8/31/20). One school also used a test called loop-mediated isothermal amplification, or LAMP, which, like PCR, measures viral DNA to identify infections. LAMP is less sensitive than PCR, but results come in much more quickly since there’s no need to send samples to a laboratory.

Antigen tests, which detect proteins from the virus and also give rapid results, helped one school move students quickly into quarantine, even though those tests have a higher rate of false-negative results. One school additionally set up wastewater sampling at dorms to pick up early signs of outbreaks.

Categories: Education