Colleges may need to test every 2 days to contain coronavirus outbreaks, study finds

Table of Contents

Dive Brief:

  • Colleges may need need to test students for the coronavirus every two days, while also having them adhere to social distancing, in order to control campus outbreaks, according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
  • Researchers modeled a scenario in which 10 of 5,000 students had the virus but were not experiencing symptoms. Frequent testing would allow colleges to manage the spread of the virus with a test that identifies only 70% of cases among people who are sick, a lower-cost option, they explain.
  • But access to testing and turnaround times for results vary widely across the sector, and outbreaks at colleges could force students into isolation or campuses to close entirely.

Dive Insight:

Such frequent testing sets “an incredibly high bar” for colleges and it may be out of reach, said A. David Paltiel, the study’s lead author and a public health professor at Yale University.

However, he added, “any school that can’t see its way toward meeting these minimum standards and maintaining uncompromising control over good prevention really (has) to ask itself if it has any business reopening.”

Screening for the virus is central to colleges’ reopening plans, but access to tests and the ability to process them quickly varies widely across the sector. Smaller colleges are teaming up with private labs, while large research universities plan to use their own facilities. But the costs can be steep.

Paltiel’s study highlights the role of frequency in campuswide testing. The base case in his report uses a test that detects the virus in infected people 70% of the time. While that means only 70 of 100 people are identified in the first test, the next round of testing will identify 21 more people, and a third test would find another six.

“Repeatedly testing can make up for the fact that the test isn’t perfectly sensitive,” he said.

The study assumes an eight-hour turnaround for results, but he acknowledged he might have assumed a longer timeframe if he could do the study again.

However, a commentary on the study, also published in JAMA, suggests colleges “consider a broader perspective” to keep the virus from spreading on campuses.

Testing every two days may not be needed, the authors explain, if colleges take a set of actions running the gamut of coronavirus protocols — from social distancing and wearing face masks to holding classes outdoors and offering employees options to telework. Many schools are also requiring students to show a negative test in order to return to campus this fall.

Some schools have decided not to test students for the virus on a regular basis, and instead monitor their symptoms and test or isolate people once they appear ill. But Paltiel said his team’s model considered “thousands” of scenarios and didn’t find one in which such an approach would be enough to contain an outbreak.

“You can’t play catch-up with this virus,” he said.

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