Do college students need COVID tests every two days to stay safe?

Either colleges open their doors to students in September or 'they risk serious financial consequences'
By: | July 31, 2020
Simply asking students to monitor themselves for symptoms such as fevers and coughs may not be not sufficient for safely reopening campuses this fall. (GettyImages/eyecrave)Simply asking students to monitor themselves for symptoms such as fevers and coughs may not be not sufficient for safely reopening campuses this fall. (GettyImages/eyecrave)

Colleges and universities may need to test students for COVID every two days, and isolate the infected in restricted residence halls, to control campus coronavirus outbreaks, a new study suggests.

Simply asking students to monitor themselves for symptoms such as fevers and coughs was not sufficient for safely reopening campuses this fall, according to a JAMA Network Open report.

“The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic poses an existential threat to many US residential colleges,” the JAMA researcher wrote. “Either they open their doors to students in September or they risk serious financial consequences.”

The study analyzed a hypothetical start to a semester with 4,990 students without COVID and 10 students with undetected asymptomatic infections.


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The researchers then modeled the severity of outbreaks based on different levels and types of campus COVID testing, and also attempt to measure cost-effectiveness.

Even under ideal situations—such as getting test results within eight hours—the key for administrators trying to control an outbreak will how they manage positive tests, including a significant number of false positives, the researchers say.

Quarantining students with false-positives could overwhelm the facilities where true cases are being isolated.

“Setting aside the logistic challenges and financial costs, administrators must anticipate the anxiety such separations may provoke among both students and their families,” the researchers wrote. “Excessive numbers of false-positive results may fuel panic and undermine confidence in the reliability of the monitoring program.”

Obtaining the necessary supplies—including 195,000 test kits—to screen 5,000 students every two days could also be difficult, the report says.


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Those kits could cost anywhere from $10 to $50 each, though lower-cost that allow students to test themselves may soon become available.

Even with frequent testing, controlling an outbreak will also rely on strict adherence to handwashing, wearing masks indoors, eliminating buffet dining, reducing class sizes and other safety measures.

“All members of the university community must understand the fragility of the situation and the ease with which inattention to behavior may propagate infections and precipitate the need once again to shut down campus,” the researchers wrote.


UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.