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COVID Takes Challenge of Tracking Infectious College Students to New Level

As students returned to the University of Missouri, the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services saw a COVID spike, with the peak reaching more than 200 new cases per day. (Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

As the return of college students to campuses has fueled as many as 3,000 COVID-19 cases a day, keeping track of them is a logistical nightmare for local health departments and colleges.

Some students are putting down their home addresses instead of their college ones on their COVID testing forms — slowing the transfer of case data and hampering contact tracing across state and county lines.

The address issue has real consequences, as any delay in getting the case to the appropriate authorities allows the coronavirus to continue to spread unchecked. Making matters worse, college-age people already tend to be hard to trace because they are unlikely to answer a phone call from an unknown number.

“With that virus, you really need to be able to identify that case and their contacts in 72 hours,” said Indiana University’s assistant director for public health, Graham McKeen.

And if the students do go home once infected, where should their cases be counted? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighted this issue in a recent study of an unnamed North Carolina university’s COVID outbreak, stating that the number of cases was likely an underestimate. “For example, some cases were reported to students’ home jurisdictions, some students did not identify themselves as students to the county health department, some students did not report to the student health clinic, and not all students were tested,” it said.

The White House coronavirus task force even addressed the problem in weekly memos sent to the governors of Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky and New Jersey. “Do not reassign cases that test positive in university settings to hometown as this lessens ability to track and control local spread,” it recommended late last month in the memos, made public by the Center for Public Integrity.

While the full scope of the address confusion is unclear, the health departments of California, Indiana, Iowa and Virginia all acknowledged the challenges that arise when college cases cross state and county lines.

The maze of calls needed to track such cases also lays bare a larger problem: the lack of an interconnected COVID tracking system. Colleges have been setting up their own contact tracing centers to supplement overstretched local and state health departments.

“It is very patchwork, and people operate very differently, and it also doesn’t translate during a pandemic,” said McKeen, whose own university has had more than 2,900 cases across its Indiana campuses. “It made it very clear the public health system in this country is horribly underfunded and understaffed.”

Colleges’ transient populations have forever bedeviled public health when it comes to reportable infectious diseases, such as measles and bacterial meningitis, Association of Public Health Laboratories spokesperson Michelle Forman said in an email to KHN. But the coronavirus infections spreading across the country’s universities, and the mass testing conducted to find them, are something else altogether.

“COVID is just a different scale,” she said.

Lisa Cox, a spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said the issue of transient addresses affects more than just college students. Jails and rehab facilities also have people moving in and out, exacerbating the risk of disease spread and the difficulty in tracking it.

The crush of student cases at the start of a new term, though, can be overwhelming. As students returned to the University of Missouri, the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services saw a COVID spike, with the peak reaching more than 200 new cases per day.

“So, first of all, we’re delayed anyway because we can’t keep up with the onslaught of cases,” said Scott Clardy, assistant director of the health department.

But then, he added, these address mishaps required his department to spend time attempting to reclassify counts and contact possibly infected people.

“It slows us down,” he said, estimating the department was up to five days behind in mid-September on contacting infected people and reaching out to those who may have been exposed to the virus.

The University of Missouri has had more than 1,600 cases so far, but spokesperson Christian Basi said the number of new cases has dropped significantly. By the end of September, the health department had finally caught up, Clardy said, letting staffers trace contacts more quickly.

This address issue can also mean some cases are potentially being undercounted, double counted or initially counted incorrectly as state health departments sort out where these infected students actually are staying, Indiana University’s McKeen said — potentially skewing case counts and positivity rates for local jurisdictions. He has noticed several such cases.

Iowa and Indiana officials said they were working with localities to ensure cases did not go miscounted, including developing directions for college students to put down their school address. Virginia officials said their contact tracers work diligently to identify the infected person’s current location and share it with other health departments if it is out of Virginia.

In Massachusetts, Pat Bruchmann, chief public health nurse for the Worcester Division of Public Health, said she had noticed some students at the 11 colleges in her district were getting tested off campus or when they went home for the weekend. In response, her department now proactively looks for positive test results among people who are of typical college age. So far, she’s had 10 or so cases reassigned to her department from other areas because of address issues, Bruchmann said.

Back in Missouri, freshman Kate Taylor said she fell through the cracks amid the initial rush of cases at the University of Missouri at the end of August.

After testing positive for COVID-19, Taylor said, she was told there wasn’t enough room for her to quarantine on campus. The university’s Basi denied that any students had been told the school didn’t have enough space but said he could not discuss details of Taylor’s case without her consent.

The 18-year-old student said she went home 2½ hours away to Jefferson County, where she was told her case would be transferred to local officials. But after nine days of quarantining, Taylor said, she never heard from anyone at her local health department.

She said her contact tracing experience wasn’t much better: Her boyfriend at the university got a call about her case, but the tracer got him confused with her roommate. The tracer then hung up.

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COVID-19 Public Health States