Are COVID-19 case counts tied to off-campus activity at colleges?

Making the distinction is difficult, but institutions could be protected 'islands' given mandates and mitigation strategies.
By: | October 20, 2021
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The University of Oregon began its fall semester later than most institutions this year. As a result, while others saw cases of COVID-19 rise in early September, its numbers increased from late September and into mid-October.

Although they haven’t been off the charts—there have been 200 cases among 27,000 returning students since the beginning of the fall semester, including 14 members of its marching band—the university has seen 75% of those positives come from its off-campus student population as cases across Lane County have steadily declined. The university does have a vaccine mandate in place and its populations are more than 95% vaccinated.

The same pattern shows up, too, at Arizona State University, which last week instituted a vaccine requirement for students, staff and faculty. Of the 83 positive cases during its last 7-day reporting period, 77 came from the Phoenix metro area, not from those residing at its four campuses. Unlike Lane County, COVID numbers continue to be high in Maricopa County, at around 10%.

Could positive cases at the start of the fall semester be tied to students acquiring COVID outside of campus gates? An article from Colorado Public Radio suggests that colleges have become “vaccine islands,” insulated from cases in the surrounding communities where the spread is high. Because of high vaccinations rates and tight mitigation efforts, for example, there have been far fewer outbreaks across higher education this fall, even as most returned to near full residential capacity.

The numbers at UO and ASU support that theory. But at urban campuses, it is a bit tougher to make that distinction.

The University of New Haven, in a fairly busy location in southern Connecticut, has seen few cases overall since the start of the semester because of mandates and mitigation efforts, with only a slight lean to positive off-campus numbers.

“Our vaccination rates are pretty similar in both groups,” says Dr. Anthony Santella, professor and COVID-19 Coordinator at UNH. “There aren’t stark differences. People are going to work. They’re going to school. They’re socializing. Those mix. [At the more rural University of Connecticut] most students live on campus. You’re kind of in the middle of nowhere. There are very different behaviors.”

UConn has had 30 positive cases among students on its remote Storrs main campus since Aug. 25 while reporting 25 off of it.

Emory University, located in Atlanta, started 2021-22 with 152 cases but has whittled those down to three active faculty and no student positives. Since Oct. 5, it has confirmed 34 cases, but only 12 of those have come from off-campus.

One of the challenges in connecting the on- and off-campus numbers nationally is that not all institutions report them that way through COVID-19 dashboards, but simply combine the two. Some are still not operating residentially at full capacity. And locations vary greatly in terms of students staying on campus or not, even in rural areas.

At the California State University system, only a few of the 23 institutions break out off-campus data. But overall, the count is nearly split (at 52% on campus and 48% off). San Diego State University, one of those that did delineate data in 2020, reported nearly twice as many positive COVID cases last year from those who operated outside of its halls and residences.