In a new study, researchers found that college campuses are at risk of becoming COVID-19 superspreaders for their entire county.
They found that over half of the 30 campuses they checked had spikes—at their peak—which were well above 1,000 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people per week within the first two weeks of class.
In some colleges, one in five students had been infected with the virus by the end of the fall term. Four institutions had over 5,000 cases.
In 17 of the campuses monitored, a new computer model showed outbreaks translated directly into peaks of infection within their home counties.
The researchers also found that tight outbreak management, for example, the immediate transition from in-person to all online learning, can reduce the peaks within about two weeks.
The research was conducted by scientists at Stanford University.
In the study, the team drew COVID-19 case reports from 30 publicly available college dashboards across the United States throughout the fall of 2020.
These institutions were either teaching in person, online or a hybrid of both. They selected colleges for which case numbers are reported on a daily basis and the total cumulative case number exceeded 100.
During this time window, the nationwide number of new cases had dropped below 50,000 per day.
The team says it is becoming increasingly clear that these initial college outbreaks are unrelated to the national outbreak dynamics.
Instead, they are independent local events driven by campus reopening and inviting students back to campus.
The results confirm the widespread fear in early fall that colleges could become the new hot spots of COVID-19 transmission.
But the majority of colleges and universities were able to rapidly manage their outbreaks and suppress campus-wide infections, while the neighboring communities were less successful in controlling the spread of the virus.
As a result, for most institutions, the outbreak dynamics remained manageable throughout the entire fall of 2020 with narrow spikes of less than 300 cases per day.
The team believes that this methodology, in combination with continuing online learning, is the best way to prevent college sites from becoming the major hub of the disease.
One author of the study is Hannah Lu from Stanford’s Energy Resources Engineering program.
The study is published in Computer Methods in Biomechanics and Biomedical Engineering.
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