08/10 News Flash 5: A Safe Semester: Can Testing Help Control COVID on College Campuses?

Art by Siena Cizdziel.

With the fall semester just around the corner, universities have been scrambling to institute guidelines to prevent potential COVID-19 outbreaks. A recent study conducted by the Yale School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School detailed the necessary precautions that in-residence universities would have to take  to prevent  SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks.

Researchers analyzed a model of a hypothetical group of 5000 students, 10 of whom had undetected infections with the novel coronavirus. The study found that universities should use low sensitivity, high-specificity tests – those with higher rates of false positives but lower rates of false negatives. These tests must be administered every 2 days to all students to control an outbreak, with an estimated cost of $470 per student per semester. In addition, the study also found that, for testing measures to be effective, schools must operate under strict social distancing, implement mandatory indoor mask-wearing, and “de-densify” classroom and living spaces. 

This study indicates that, if the correct precautions are taken, residential colleges could be able to contain, even if not prevent,  COVID-19 outbreaks on campus. Notably, the study did not address a crucial aspect of university COVID-19 planning: the effect that a potential outbreak may have on university staff and surrounding communities. This must be addressed if universities are to safely reopen in the fall.