Counties reported a 56% uptick in COVID-19 cases where large colleges or universities held in-person classes, a study has found.
Infections increased from 15.3 per 100,000 people to 23.9 per 100,000 from the 21 days before in-person classes began up to three weeks after classes began, according to data that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Thursday.
Conversely, counties with online-only colleges reported a 17.9% drop in infections, from 17.9 to 14.7 per 100,000, during the same period. Counties without large colleges and universities reported a 5.9% decline in coronavirus infections, from 15.3 to 14.4 cases per 100,000.
“COVID-19 incidence, hotspot occurrence, COVID-19 related testing, and test positivity increased in university counties with in-person instruction. Efforts to prevent and mitigate COVID-19 transmission are critical for U.S. colleges and universities. Congregate living settings at colleges and universities were linked to transmissions,” the researchers wrote in the CDC study.
The study included nonprofit colleges with 20,000 or more students enrolled and their fall start dates and instructional formats.
Of the 133 counties with large colleges and universities, 101 that had classes that started from July 27 to Aug. 28 were included in the analysis. Twenty-two of the university counties had remote instruction, and 79 had in-person classes.
The researchers compared the COVID-19 incidence, testing rates, percentage test positivity and hot spot status of university counties with online instruction and in-person learning to counties without large colleges during the 21 days before and after classes started.
Hot spot occurrences escalated as well with all in-person and remote university counties and non-university counties. University counties with in-person learning reported a 30.4% climb in hots pots followed by remote-instruction university counties with a 9.1% rise and nonuniversity counties with 1.5% increase.
Higher testing rates at the county level were reported before the start of the school year in university counties than non-university counties.
When comparing the start of classes through day 21 to 21 days before classes began, the average daily testing increased 4.2% and 14.1% for remote instruction and in-person instruction university counties respectively, but dropped by 1% for non-university counties.
“Understanding the extent to which these settings have affected county-level COVID-19 incidence can inform ongoing college and university operations and future planning,” the researchers wrote.
“Testing students for COVID-19 when they return to campus and throughout the semester might be an effective strategy to rapidly identify and isolate new cases to interrupt and reduce further transmissions. Colleges and universities should work to achieve greater adherence to the recommended use of masks, hand hygiene, social distancing, and COVID-19 surveillance among students, including those who are exposed, symptomatic, and asymptomatic,” they wrote.
The researchers suggested that improving testing capacity and safety measures could be crucial for higher education institutions in areas where disease spread into the broader community could worsen disparities such as health care access and susceptibility to COVID-19 among populations with underlying conditions.
More than 397,000 COVID-19 cases and at least 90 deaths were reported on college campuses as of last month, according to a New York Times analysis of more than 1,900 American colleges and universities.
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