COVID on Campus: At the largest universities, data vary widely and lacks transparency

Students, staff and community are left in the dark about infections, testing and mandatory quarantines at some schools
Published: Sep. 17, 2020 at 4:59 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 17, 2020 at 6:35 PM CDT
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(InvestigateTV) - After breaking up an off-campus party at Miami University in Ohio, Oxford police Sgt. M. Hatfield sat in his cruiser and let out a seemingly frustrated sigh.

He had just learned that one of those partying college students had recently tested positive for COVID-19. He was about to learn the situation was even worse.

“I’ve never seen this before,” Hatfield said in the Sept. 5 body-cam video obtained from the Oxford police by InvestigateTV.

The officer’s computer flagged the party host as someone who had tested positive for COVID. The others then told Hatfield that they, too, were positive.

Across the country, cities large and small are grappling with their relationships with their college neighbors.

Some cities such as Oxford and Columbia, Missouri have seen significant spikes in people infected with the coronavirus after students returned to campus. On Sept. 16, Missouri’s football coach announced that 12 players have tested positive for COVID-19 recently.

North Carolina in Chapel Hill had to shut down and go to remote learning a week after classes resumed. West Virginia University followed suit in early September just weeks after school began.

These examples are why public health experts say that colleges and universities need to be transparent about COVID on campus.

But an InvestigateTV analysis of coronavirus dashboards at 107 of the largest universities in the U.S. found that only a handful are giving a complete picture of what’s happening on their campuses.

More than 75% don’t publicly report the number of active cases among students or staff.

Nearly 60% don’t report the number of tests that have been administered to students and staff. A robust testing system is one of the key measures to holding the virus at bay, public health experts have said.

Nearly 60% also do not disclose positivity rates, a key measure used to determine how widespread the virus is on campus. Louisiana State University is one of the schools that secrets this. Just this week, its football coach announced that most of the team has had COVID.

Eleven schools – including the University of Tennessee – don’t release the total number of cases they’ve had.

Four of them don’t release any data about students or employees who have tested positive including the University of Louisiana-Monroe. In late August, that school suspended its football activities after an outbreak among the team, according to news reports.

Then others make the information hard to find. At the University of Nevada at Reno, readers have to scroll through dropdowns to find a brief sentence about each case on its campus.

“We need as much transparency as possible,” said Dr. Howard Forman, professor at the Yale School of Public Health. Many colleges “have very good dashboards, but some colleges are either hiding data or have a horrible dashboard.”

Students want detailed information, too.

Information about specific campus outbreaks is even more elusive

Earlier this month, University of Texas freshman Yliana Roland found a startling story in her student newspaper: residents in her dorm had tested positive for COVID-19.

“I shouldn’t have to find out that there are cases in the building I literally live in from an external source,” Roland told InvestigateTV. “The responsibility shouldn’t be on the student organization to give us transparent information about our health and safety. It should be the university.”

But few universities release much beyond aggregate numbers, fearing a violation of students' private health information if they name a residence hall where a case was found.

Indiana University, for example, reports the positivity rates at Greek houses on its campus and in dorms, but doesn’t name them.

Troy University in Alabama, on the other hand, lists the names of dorms and Greek houses where cases have emerged.

The University of North Carolina reported outbreaks on its “clusters notification” page through Sept. 3.

But most schools remain silent on specifics.

Roland said that that generic information isn’t enough to protect students and the community at large.

“Students need to know where these cases are so they can take the proper precautions,” she said.

She launched on online petition in attempt to change the way her campus in downtown Austin reports cases.

“We all use the same elevators, laundry facilities, dining halls, restrooms, etc. And while sanitation measures are in place, being that cases ARE emerging on campus, it is safe to conclude that it’s simply inefficient to only directly inform a fraction of those frequenting on campus buildings. Students, faculty, and staff deserve to full transparency regarding the status of COVID-19 in the places they work and live. No names need to be made public for privacy and safety reasons, but it’s ludicrous to not provide full transparency to residents and workers, most of whom either pay thousands of dollars to attend this institution, or work tireless hours to make a living here. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of a student organization to do what an esteemed university should be,” the petition says.

Nearly 1,200 people had signed it as of Sept. 17.

She said the university has not responded to her requests for transparency either through her petition or her calls to various university officials.

“This is something that effects everyone,” she said. “The university needs to do something about that. We can’t act like UT is in a bubble.”

Public health experts rate colleges' transparency

Last month, Dr. Forman and his colleagues at Yale began a project to rate universities' transparency on COVID.

Schools are graded on how often they release updated case numbers, if they release testing data and, among other things, if they share the number of students in isolation and quarantine. The results are posted on the Rate Covid Dashboard website.

Of the 155 schools rated thus far, only nine earned an A, the top rating.

“Our goal is not to shame,” Forman said. “Out goal is to elevate the transparency.”

The University of Texas, Roland’s school, earns an A- because it publishes testing, positive cases and updates its website at least on weekdays.

West Virginia University earned a B+ because it frequently updates its case counts and testing data.

The school has strived from the beginning to be transparent, said Rob Alsop, vice president of strategic initiatives.

“You cannot communicate enough,” Alsop said. “You need to be consistently advising folks of what the facts are.”

The data drove the university to halt most of all its in-person classes in mid-September as the positivity rate rose. The fear, Alsop said, is the impact that infected college students can have on the community at large.

“At some point in time, they’re going to be at a grocery store or they’re going to be at a restaurant when they’re really contagious and then it’s going to get a mother, a father, a grandmother or somebody in our community,” he said. “It puts the community at undue risk.”

He said the school will re-evaluate Sept. 23 if they can safety return to in-person learning.

Another key measure in Forman’s rating whether schools report students in isolation or quarantine.

Auburn, Georgia Tech, Michigan State, Northwestern all received grades of C or below and are among the 55 schools in InvestigateTV’s analysis that don’t report the number of students in isolation and quarantine.

Miami University in Ohio also is among those schools that don’t report isolation and quarantine.

Its student in the now infamous police video was supposed to be in quarantine at the time he hosted that Sept. 5 party.

Oxford’s Sgt. Hatfield asked the host of the Sept. 5 party if he was supposed to be quarantining. The student said that he was.

“You’re not quarantining if you’re mixing with other people,” Hatfield said. “It’s what we’re trying to prevent, you know? We want to keep this town open.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said on Sept. 17 that Miami University is largely responsible for Miami County, with 100,000 residents, having the ninth highest COVID rate in the state.

Investigative producer Megan Luther and news contest specialists Lauren Davis, Brianna Lanham, Daniela Molina and Emma Ruby contributed to this report.

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