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The key to safely reopening college campuses? Testing

Posted at 12:00 PM, Aug 06, 2020

In a few weeks, thousands of college students will begin their yearly right of fall by returning to the campus of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, but a return to campus life this year will mean testing and quarantining for those students who chose to come back.

Like colleges and universities across the country, Tufts is experimenting with a new plan that will allow more than 5,000 students to come back to campus while at the same time, instituting rigorous new guidelines in an effort to keep COVID-19 from spreading.

The key to success, testing.

“We wanted to test for COVID at a frequency that would catch people when they’re asymptomatic before they have a chance to spread,” explained Tuft’s President Anthony Monaco.

Tufts plan for the fall is as complex as the virus itself. Students from outside the Northeast will be brought back to campus first, where they will be forced to quarantine for 14 days. Health officials expect at least a small portion of those students to test positive for COVID-19 the moment they step back on campus. Because of that, the university has constructed an extra 200 modular units of dorm space. The idea of the modular facilities is to give campus health officials a contained area to monitor students who test positive for the virus, while at the same time, keeping them out of the general population.

After students from outside the Northeast are brought back to campus, students from the general area around New England will return.

Every single student will be tested twice a week for COVID-19, something experts say will be a key component to safely reopening college campuses this fall. Regardless, school officials expect students to test positive for the virus throughout the fall.

Researchers at Yale’s School of Public Health have been advising Tufts and hundreds of other colleges who are planning to resume some form of in-person learning this fall.

“If we don’t test frequently, we give silent spreaders an opportunity to grab hold and this virus is hard to play catch-up with,” explained Professor A. David Paltiel, who recently published a study on how quickly the virus can spread through colleges if left unchecked.

To study the virus, Paltiel and his colleagues used epidemic modeling to assemble hypothetical situations resembling a college campus. The study found that if you take 5,000 healthy students and add in only 10 students who have COVID-19, hundreds, if not thousands, of kids will be sick by Thanksgiving.

“At that point, the only thing that keeps the virus from getting out of control is Thanksgiving break,” he said.

That is why testing is key, the study found. When Paltiel took those same 5,000 kids and added in 10 students who have COVID-10, but tested every student twice a week, the study found that only about 100 students ended up catching COVID.

“Many universities are planning to only test students who have symptoms, in our view that is a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Only adding to the uncertainty of the situation, about 40 percent of college students said they would return to live near campus even if classes were held virtually. Paltiel and other health officials say because of that, it’s more beneficial to have students on-campus where they can be monitored and tested frequently.

“It’s hard and it could be a nightmare, people who say we shouldn’t open campuses should remember the nightmare doesn’t go away,” he said.