What does reopening a campus do to infection in communities?

When a vaccine emerges and we’re out of this mess, one of the big questions is going to surround the trade-offs and balances between health, economic and educational needs that people have weighed up.

They are not uniform across the UK, and the resumption of face to face teaching in a university town or city obviously has major potential effects in all three arenas.

According to this pre-print, for example, the return of a relatively large student population to a city with low levels of Covid-19 “substantially increases” the total number of infections in the community.

The usual caveats apply here – this is a pre-print that has not yet been peer reviewed that concerns a different higher education system.

To calculate this, researchers at Western Ontario developed a transmission model with three interacting populations: the general population in a university town, university students, and long-term care residents, and then “parameterized” the model using medical literature and expert opinion.

The town? The team calibrated the whole thing to actual outcomes in a mid-sized Canadian city between March 1 and August 15, 2020 prior to the arrival of students, and evaluated the impact of the student population (20,000 ish) on infections over the autumn term, the timing of peak infections, the timing and peak level of critical care occupancy, and the timing of social and economic restrictions.

The results? In a scenario where students immediately engage in a 24% contact reduction compared to pre-Covid levels, the total number of infections in the community increases by 87% (from 3,900 without the students to 7,299 infections with the students), with 71% of the incremental infections occurring in the general population – causing social and economic restrictions (ie whack-a-mole) to be re-engaged 3 weeks earlier and an incremental 17 deaths.

And scenarios where students have an initial, short-term increase in contacts with other students before engaging in contact reduction behaviours can increase infections in the community by 150% or more.

What is recommended? We’re back to mass testing. Screening asymptomatic students every 5 days reduces the number of infections attributable to students arriving by 42% and delays the re-imposition of social and economic restrictions by 1 week.

Meanwhile in another pre-print, US universities that reopened their campuses for face to face teaching contributed more than 3,000 Covid-19 cases a day in their counties that wouldn’t have emerged if they had remained online.

Again, it’s a pre-print, hasn’t been peer reviewed and is about US universities. But if anything the differences in characteristics of US and UK universities might cause us to be more concerned rather than less.

To get to their findings researchers triangulated students’ mobile phone GPS-tracking data with infection rates in universities’ surrounding counties from Mid-July to Mid-September – in other words both before and after students appeared.

Unsurprisingly, reopening campuses for face-to-face resulted in between 1,000 to 5,000 additional cases per day. But it’s the double effect that’s fascinating here. When students moved from counties with high infection rates, the campuses where they arrived at experienced more Covid-19 cases. The paper figures that that was caused by students flowing into the area during the week just before teaching started and then for two weeks afterwards.

All of which underlines why Arlene Foster’s threat of stopping students going home at the weekend, and Boris Johnson’s rather hamfisted “we won’t let them return home to infect their eldery relatives” thing is potentially so important. Christopher R. Marsicano, an assistant professor of higher education at Davidson College, argues:

Colleges shouldn’t send students home this fall, unless it’s the end of the semester. Once they’re on campus, they should stay on campus”.

That’s a lot easier said than done in the UK.

One response to “What does reopening a campus do to infection in communities?

  1. “But if anything the differences in characteristics of US and UK universities might cause us to be more concerned rather than less.” Indeed, with many US Universities having huge virtually self contained campuses and comparatively little interaction with local communities compared with the UK model.

    The Canadian model rings true in my experience of Canada, with the large ‘retired’ communities (villages by their own description) very much at risk from returning students bringing home the infection and a few picking it up when visiting during holidays taking back to their ‘village’. The huge number of deaths in Kawartha, particularly the Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon and staff carried infections to other care homes, from a single infected individual should be a stark warning of the potential damage students might do.

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