University COVID-19 testing can reduce deaths in local communities

Taking a COVID-19 test has become an integral part of life for many students. This ritual may not only protect these students’ classmates and teachers, but also their municipal bus drivers, neighbors and other members of the local community, according to a new study.

Counties where colleges and universities conducted COVID-19 testing had fewer COVID-19 cases and deaths than those whose schools conducted no testing in fall 2020, researchers report June 23. in Digital Health PLOS. While previous analyzes have shown that counties with colleges that brought students back to campus had more COVID-19 cases than those that continued education online, this is the first look at the impact of campus testing on these communities nationwide (SN: 02/23/21).

“It is difficult to think of universities as mere silos within cities; it’s just a lot more permeable than that,” says Brennan Klein, a networking specialist at Northeastern University in Boston.

Colleges that tested their students generally did not see significantly fewer cases than schools that did not test, Klein and his colleagues found. But the communities surrounding these schools have seen fewer cases and deaths. That’s because cities with colleges doing regular testing had a better idea of ​​how much COVID-19 was circulating in their communities, Klein says, which allowed those cities to understand the level of risk and put put in place masking policies and other mitigation strategies.

The results highlight the crucial role testing can continue to play as students return to campus this fall, says Sam Scarpino, vice president of pathogen surveillance at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Pandemic Prevention Institute in Washington, D.C. DC. Testing “may not be optional in the fall if we want to keep colleges and universities open safely,” he says.

Find a flight path

Like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 spread rapidly around the world in the spring of 2020, it had a rapid impact on American students. Most were abruptly sent home from dorms, lecture halls, study abroad programs and even spring break to spend the rest of the semester online. And with the start of the fall semester just months away, schools were “flying blind” as to how to get students back to campus safely, Klein says.

That fall, Klein, Scarpino and their collaborators began laying out a potential flight path for schools by collecting data from COVID-19 dashboards created by universities and counties surrounding those schools to track cases. The researchers ranked schools by whether they opted for fully online learning or in-person instruction. They then divided schools with in-person learning based on whether or not testing existed.

It’s not a perfect comparison, Klein says, because this method groups schools that conducted a series of tests with those that conducted consistent monitoring tests. But the team’s analyzes still generally show how colleges’ pandemic response has impacted their local communities.

Overall, counties with colleges have had more cases and deaths than counties without schools. However, testing has minimized the increase in cases and deaths. During the fall semester, from August to December, counties with colleges that conducted testing averaged 14 fewer deaths per 100,000 population than counties with colleges that brought back students without testing — 56 deaths per 100,000 compared to around 70.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst, with nearly 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students in 2020, is a case study in the value of testing, Klein says. Throughout the fall semester, the school tested students twice a week. That means three times as many tests have taken place in the town of Amherst than in nearby towns, he says. For much of the fall and winter, Amherst had fewer COVID-19 cases per 1,000 residents than its neighboring counties and state averages.

Once students left for winter break, on-campus testing ceased – so overall local testing dropped. When students returned for the spring semester in February 2021, the region’s cases spiked — possibly due to students bringing back the coronavirus from their travels and being exposed to local residents whose cases may have been missed due to declining local testing. The students returned “to a city that has more COVID than they realize,” Klein says.

Renewed on-campus testing not only caught the spike, but quickly prompted mitigation strategies. The university moved classes to Zoom and asked students to stay in their rooms, even telling them at one point that they shouldn’t walk outside. In mid-March, the university reduced the spread of cases on campus and the city again had a lower rate of COVID-19 cases than its neighbors for the rest of the semester, the team found. .

The value of testing

It helps to know that the tests overall helped protect local communities, says David Paltiel, a public health researcher at the Yale School of Public Health who was not involved in the study. Paltiel was one of the first researchers to call for routine testing on college campuses, whether or not students show symptoms.

“I think the testing and the masking and all of those things have probably been really helpful, because in the fall of 2020 we didn’t have a vaccine yet,” he says. Rapid identification of cases and isolation of affected students, he adds, were essential at the time.

But every school is unique, he says, and the benefits of testing likely vary from school to school. And now, two and a half years into the pandemic, the cost-benefit calculus is different now that vaccines are widely available and schools are faced with new variants of SARS-CoV-2. Some of these variants have spread so quickly that even twice-weekly testing may not catch all cases on campus fast enough to stop their spread, he says.

As colleges and universities prepare for the fall 2022 semester, he would recommend schools consider testing students upon their return to campus with less frequent follow-up surveillance testing to “ensure that things don’t get crazy and out of control.”

Still, the study shows that regular on-campus testing can benefit the wider community, Scarpino says. In fact, he hopes to capitalize on the interest in COVID-19 testing to roll out more widespread public health testing for several respiratory viruses, including influenza, in places like college campuses. In addition to PCR tests — the kind that involve sticking a swab up your nose — such efforts could also scan sewage and the air in buildings for pathogens (SN: 05/28/20).

Unchecked transmission of the coronavirus continues to disrupt lives — in the United States and around the world — and new variants will continue to emerge, he says. “We need to prepare for another SARS-CoV-2 surge in the fall when schools reopen, and we will be back in respiratory season.”

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