From requiring students to take COVID-19 tests before departing campus to restricting dorm access, colleges are tightening protocols ahead of Thanksgiving and winter breaks, when thousands of students are expected to journey home for the holidays amid a national coronavirus surge.
Public health experts say traveling, especially in airports or by public transit, is inherently risky when COVID-19 infections are high, and colleges are discouraging students from shuttling back and forth in the coming weeks.
But concern remains that young adults crisscrossing the country might seed new infections in their home communities — or within their own households. Though schools with resources to conduct exit testing aim to address that worry, doctors say students shouldn’t rely solely on negative results. It can take several days after infection for viral particles to become detectable in a sample, research shows.
For Gabi Garcia, a second-year student residing at the University of Chicago, staying in the city for Thanksgiving seemed to be a better option than flying home to Portland, Oregon.
The university is ending in-person instruction before Thanksgiving and conducting the last week of fall classes and final exams remotely. Students living in campus housing are not allowed to return to the dorms until January, when the next term starts, if they go home for Thanksgiving.
Garcia, 19, said she is wary of travel and felt that completing her coursework at home, in a different time zone, would be too challenging. As a result, she plans to finish the quarter in Chicago and then fly home for the longer winter break because her parents want to see her and she misses the landscape of the Pacific Northwest.
Still, Garcia she said she’s nervous about traveling when the time comes, especially because her airline has started filling all of its seats instead of spacing out passengers. Though Garcia takes a COVID-19 test every week as required by U. of C., she said she might quarantine upon arriving home if the airport feels too crowded.
“If I didn’t absolutely have to be traveling I would not,” said Garcia, a classics and computer science major. “I would really rather not at all. I try not to go many places because I don’t want to risk anything.”
Dr. John Segreti, an infectious disease specialist at Rush University Medical Center, said students traveling home should check the infection rates for both their current location and their final destination. If they’re traveling from an area with higher transmission, they should quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, he said.
“That’s not very convenient, but I think that makes the most sense, especially if you are living with someone who’s got comorbid conditions or is older who, when they do get COVID-19, they are more likely to get more severally ill or potentially even die,” Segreti said. “People have to take all of those things into consideration.”
Some universities say they are trying to reassure communities and act responsibly by mandating that students leaving campus partake in exit testing. Others are offering it voluntarily or continuing to follow the testing programs already in place.
According to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, which is requiring all undergraduate students, whether symptomatic or not, to test before in-person classes end Friday, the strategy is being used “with the interest of protecting public health as students prepare to leave campus and return to the homes of their parents and families.”
Students who test positive for COVID-19, or have had close contact with an infected person, can isolate on campus, be picked up and driven home by a family member, or immediately drive themselves home if they have a car on campus.
The school will close dorms Sunday, and they won’t reopen until next semester, Vanderbilt has announced. Students who need to stay on campus, including athletes, international students and housing-insecure students, must apply to remain in university housing.
The University of Notre Dame just outside South Bend, Indiana, is requiring both undergraduate and graduate students to sign up for tests on campus, warning that it will prevent those who don’t comply from registering for classes next semester or obtaining a transcript.
Notre Dame students must schedule a test before Saturday and remain in South Bend until a negative result comes back, the school has said. If they test positive, they cannot leave until the campus health center authorizes it.
But Segreti warned that even with these methods, there’s “no foolproof type of testing” unless students are assessed every day, which would be financially and logistically challenging for institutions. Not all schools procured enough supplies to conduct widespread testing due to shortages this summer.
Segreti and other health professionals have cautioned against the false sense of confidence that negative results can create. It takes two to 12 days for individuals to experience symptoms, and testing might not detect the virus if amounts in the nostrils or saliva are too low during this period, Segreti said.
“I don’t see how exit testing can be all that effective because the negative test on the day you leave just means you’re not infectious on the day you leave,” Segreti said. “It doesn’t predict what’s going to happen in the next few days to two weeks.”
He acknowledged that testing could help identify some asymptomatic students but underscored that it won’t catch all positive cases.
Dr. Jeffrey Pothof, an emergency medicine physician and chief quality officer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s health system, said exit testing can be helpful as long as students understand the limitations, stressing that a negative result “doesn’t give you a free pass” to act recklessly.
Students should take other preventive actions to avoid spreading the virus over the holidays. That means limiting social activity with groups, wearing face coverings and social distancing as much as possible, Pothof and others said.
“If you plan on going home, you really need to buckle down for that two weeks before you leave,” Pothof said.
Based on lessons learned from the fall, Pothof said it’s possible college students traveling home from areas with high rates of infection could bring the virus to communities that have otherwise seen low caseloads.
After students moved back to UW-Madison for classes, the virus spiked in areas of the state that hadn’t experienced high rates, perhaps as students commuted back and forth between campus and home, he said.
In Illinois in recent days, COVID-19 cases have spiked to levels not seen since the spring, hospitals are filling with COVID-19 patients, and public health experts are advising residents to stay home as much as possible.
With fall break less than a week away, the state’s largest university is ratcheting up its warnings about the risks of traveling.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is asking students who leave campus for the fall break that begins Saturday to remain away if possible, though dorms will be open for students who feel they need to be on campus.
As with other colleges trying to discourage travel, all courses will switch to remote delivery after break and finals will be conducted remotely so there’s no need to return until spring semester.
“We are entering another extremely dangerous period as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising extraordinarily rapidly in our community and state,” Chancellor Robert Jones said in a recent message to students. “Everyone needs to do their part to protect themselves and our community.”
Though the school’s seven-day case positivity rate remains well below 1%, a figure buoyed by thousands of daily tests conducted with university-developed saliva technology, Jones told students that cases have risen following recent Halloween and football events.
The school is also seeing “a concerning increase” in cases tied to employees and graduate students, though Jones said they appear to stem from outside social activity and not transmission in the classroom.
In the days before break, Jones said students should not host or attend parties and that anyone planning to travel must limit their activities to attending in-person class, getting tested and visiting the pharmacy and grocery store. All undergraduates using campus facilities this fall are already required to test two to three times per week.
Students who return to campus after fall break must test as soon as possible and self-quarantine until results come back. After that, students must test every other day until the semester concludes on Dec. 18.
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