NPR rips higher ed for poor pandemic testing

How is American higher education faring this semester, as COVID-19 continues to attack the world?  National Public Radio has a very critical report which should provoke some rethinking, at least.

For context, colleges and universities are currently using a wide range of strategies to conduct operations now, from offering classes entirely online to holding the full range of campus life entirely in-person to many choices in between.  Here’s one description from the Chronicle of Higher Ed, updated almost a week ago:

coronavirus higher ed operations fall 2020 Oct 1_Chronicle

How are those primarily in person, hybrid, and fully in person schools doing how?

According to NPRthe majority of campuses have fallen down on testing.

more than 2 out of 3 colleges with in-person classes either have no clear testing plan or are testing only students who are at risk — mostly when they feel sick or have had contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus.

coronavirus colleges fall testing 2020 Oct 6_NPR

Click to get the bigger and mouseover-able version.

This is especially a problem with larger institutions:

Of colleges with in-person classes and more than 5,000 undergraduates, only 25% are conducting mass screening or random “surveillance” testing of students. Only 6% are routinely testing all of their students. Most, instead, are relying on only diagnostic testing of symptomatic students, which many experts say comes too late to control outbreaks and understates the true number of cases.

And it’s also a problem for campuses located in outbreak zones, where “[a]bout two-thirds of full-time undergraduates who attend a college in a hot spot county are on campuses that do not require routine or surveillance tests”:

coronavirus colleges fall testing hot spots 2020 Oct 6_NPR

How dangerous is this?  My readers have a good idea, but let’s add a passage from the NPR story:

“You can’t play catch-up with this virus,” says David Paltiel, a public health expert at Yale University who co-authored a study on the importance of frequent testing. “Any school that thinks it can get away with nothing more than symptomatic monitoring is a fire department responding only to calls once houses have already burned down,” he added. “You need to do more.”

The reason for this potentially horrific shortfall is also one my readers will anticipate: money.

Tests can cost more than $100 each, though some schools have found cheaper options. The Broad Institute, in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, is working with more than 100 colleges, including many small private schools in New England, to provide regular coronavirus testing. Through that partnership, tests are $25 each. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where officials are using a saliva test they developed themselves to regularly test students and staff, individual tests are about $10, but given the frequency of testing, officials estimate they’re spending about $1 million a week.

Another reason: lack of national leadership, either from the CDC or the Trump administration.

A third reason: worries that more testing would mean less compliance.  For example,

leaders [at Furman University] said they worried that regular testing would give students a false sense of security. When you test negative, “we think psychologically, you feel safer about your own health and well-being,” Ken Peterson, the provost at Furman, told NPR in late August. “So we actually think you’re less likely to mask up, you’re less likely to distance.”

Several quick thoughts:

First, this is potentially a human disaster, especially once infected students leave to spread the virus to their families and communities.

Second, perhaps governments (local, state, federal) will feel the lack of testing as something they should take steps to address.

Third, I don’t think fall 2020 is doing higher ed’s reputation any favors.  How many people will think, based on stories like this, that colleges and universities are ruthless with human lives, driven primarily by monetary concerns?

Fourth, the data problem I identified during the summer still continues.  NPR is relying on one data source hosted by one small college.  The College Crisis Initiative is a fine thing, and it only captures about one third of American higher ed.  We just don’t know how many infections higher ed is hosting now, much less how many it’ll be responsible for as the virus spreads.  It’s not even clear how many academics COVID has killed.

Fifth, if public concern about colleges and universities hosting and spreading the pandemic rises, where will funds come from to support serious testing, not to mention tracing and data publication?  State governments have been hammered by the recession.  The federal government is locked into the impending election and its possible chaos.  How many campus leaders will have to choose between COVID testing and keeping academic programs alive?

Sixth: it’s October.  Flu season is coming.  An unsprung election is unfolding.  Global COVID cases are rising:

coronavirus global spread US highlight 2020 October 6_91-DIVOC

I don’t think this is going to get better anytime soon.

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8 Responses to NPR rips higher ed for poor pandemic testing

  1. mkt42 says:

    One piece of information that has been under-publicized, although there’s been a handful of articles: there are many schools, perhaps predominantly small ones, where infection rates are low.

    The NPR graph with the circles of different sizes, color, and horizontal and vertical location does a nice job of showing three dimensions of information on a 2-dimensional graph. But the fine print notes that they limited the graph to schools with enrollments of at least 5,000 students.

    Maybe the graph would’ve become too crowded if it included a bunch of small schools. But the college that I work at has regular testing of all students and surveillance testing of people who regularly are on campus and we have had a total of 10 cases so far, including students, faculty, and staff. Even on a per capita basis that’s low, basically an infection rate of one half of 1%. I imagine there are other colleges that are even lower, maybe zero.

  2. I think that in the context of a story that shows that testing has been adequate you can’t really say “there are many schools, perhaps predominantly small ones, where infection rates are low.”

    And I think that this story shows that where self-interest is involved, institutions of higher learning are not particularly ethical. But that should be no surprise.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Self-interest: I suspect American higher ed’s reputation just took a hit here. Too many colleges and universities look ruthless if not inhumane.

  3. inadequate, not adequate (dang zero-edit comments and spell-checking with attitude)

  4. Claire M. Schwartz says:

    So many thoughts on this:
    – my husband, at an urban U, was required to get tested before going back, but has not been tested since.
    – administrations may “mandate” masks, but not enforce the rules AT ALL.
    – individual departments and heads may undermine the entire process.
    – schools also don’t want to close because they will lose fees, tuition, housing, etc., and most are in dire financial straits to begin with.
    – As a psychologist, I can tell you, there are no good answers here…. the stress that is manifesting will last long into next year and into semesters for years to come.

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