Although some colleges and universities have halted pandemic reporting, Gerri Taylor, the Co-Chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 Task Force, says there is still value in keeping those dashboards going. Without them, if institutions need to pivot quickly and install a mask mandate or increase testing—the stealth omicron variant is rising and is now the dominant strain in the U.S.—students and other stakeholders may have a lot of questions.
“They may not trust you,” Taylor says. “They may feel like, how subjective is the decision making? Is it based on facts? It is solidly based on data?”
With a dashboard, the numbers are clear, showing severity, spread and safety protocols across many data points. For two years, they’ve been a staple used by everyone from national public health leaders to moms and dads worried about their kids. Each board is unique, but one that is revolutionary in its simplicity that was recently updated is Princeton University’s site. It contains an array of easy-to-read features that spell out how severe or mild COVID is on campus. The biggest improvement is the addition of eight “Weekly Indicators” that offer simple one-word determinations of levels based on the data.
For example, Princeton has had 50 cases of COVID for a 1.26% positivity rate in its most recent reporting, so Campus Case Severity is simply labeled “Mild.” Essential Services and Testing Capacity are “Good,” while Isolation Capacity is “Fair” (only double occupancy spaces). Meanwhile, hospitalizations and spread of the virus within the community is “Low.” For those who want a further explainer for each category, there is a key that spells it out for them—Campus Case Severity is “Good” when there are no hospitalizations or “Moderate” when there are a few in hospitals and “Severe” when there are many or deaths.
Combine those data with the well-defined percentages on vaccination rates—Princeton tops more than 98% for all three doses—and the university has been able to remove some masking requirements while lowering testing on campus. At the top of its page, it notes that the campus is in a status of “Baseline,” where all systems are clear, from vaccines to essential services and healthcare capacity. With a green light from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local officials, there is no doubt why they made the calls they’ve made.
“It’s really well done, very logical. It’s a really intelligent way to look at it based on data,” Taylor says. “They have levels of Baseline, Moderate and Increased mitigation, so that they have a trigger for when they’re going to increase their mitigation on campus. If you don’t have that, if a variant hits, you’re going to be scrambling again, trying to figure out, at what point do we add masks? At what point do we go remote? This gives them some guidelines. It’s smart to keep dashboards going.”
Making the switch on testing
That Princeton lowered testing—from weekly to monthly and when students re-enter campus—is significant. Testing has been one of its best strategies for identifying and fending off large outbreaks. The university’s own lab has run more than 700,000 tests, and it was lauded for its work and vaccination rates by CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, who toured its facility and spoke there last week. It also dialed back its mask mandates two weeks ago.
Princeton is not alone. Many other universities have relaxed masking but also have decided to reduce the amount of testing they are doing. The University of Illinois, along with Illinois State University, has been one of the national leaders on saliva testing through its SHIELD program, with more than 2.7 million done since early 2020. But recently it opted to lower the number of required tests for the unvaccinated from every other day to once per week. With its 7-day positivity rate remaining at 0.6%, there is some thought that tests could be lifted altogether. But Champaign County has seen an 84% increase in cases over the past two weeks, and it is expected that the highly transmissible BA.2 variant will prevent that from happening.
“Based on our own data and science from experts, we are confident in our decision to reduce testing frequencies while continuing to maximize safety for our community,” University of Illinois Chancellor Robert Jones said. “I am grateful for lower case counts and increasing information from experts that enable us to loosen these testing requirements. I sincerely hope this is a trend that continues through the rest of the semester.”
Regardless of the lowering of testing policies, most campuses are requiring students who leave campus for spring break be subject to at least an arrival test upon return. Many universities saw large spikes in testing after the December break, for example, so that strategy worked. “Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll see whether there was any kind of increase in cases as spring breaks have been occurring,” Taylor says.
Aside from keeping dashboards going strong and mandating arrival testing, she recommends college and university leaders continue to double down on messaging that helps protect vulnerable populations, particularly as campuses relax masking. Taylor also said it is imperative that institutions not only support students but college health workers as well, keeping in mind that they will need more funding to deal with the pandemic—“some people are looking at this as if COVID is over. It’s not”—and with the mental health crisis.
“Administrators must continue to listen to their health center directors, because that’s the person who is the ‘voice of public health on their campus,’ “ Taylor says. “That’s the person who can continue to advise them, along with the dashboard, the data, the information from the local and state public health departments about COVID in their area.”