US and UK universities hit by thousands of new COVID cases

Thousands of new cases of COVID-19 are continuing to emerge in United States and United Kingdom universities following the return of students to campuses in recent weeks.

A New York Times rolling survey tracking case numbers in 1,700 US colleges and universities, updated on 8 October, has found 178,000 cases at 1,400+ colleges and at least 70 deaths since the pandemic began, with most cases discovered since the return of students in advance of the fall term but all but two deaths having occurred earlier, in the spring.

Meanwhile, in the UK, ministers have warned that the rise in cases is “getting out of control” and there is widespread concern over the risk of university cities having to be locally locked down due to outbreaks on campuses as students returned in preparation for the start of the autumn term.

The New York Times reported that more than 45 colleges in the US have reported 1,000 or more cases during the pandemic and more than 300 have reported more than 100 cases, although some universities have only just begun reporting.

Among those that have reported the most cases are Ohio State University with 3,051, University of Wisconsin-Madison with 3,041, Indiana University Bloomington with 2,917, University of Alabama with 2,784, Penn State University with 2,682, the University of Arizona with 2,381 and University of Arkansas with 2,034.

The New York Times has counted 171,000 additional cases at colleges since late July, with more than 48,000 of those coming since late September and tens of thousands reported in the ‘recent days’ before 8 October. The universities collect and report data in different ways and not all universities have reported to the survey.

Some universities are increasing transparency on COVID-19 by publishing a COVID-19 testing data dashboard.

The dashboard for Ohio State University, for instance, shows daily cases numbers over five months, seven-day average test results for all students, cumulative student test figures, a checklist for PPE provision and test data for the Ohio area and hospital capacity data. In the month since it was set up it has had more than 1.1 million views.

Ohio State’s dashboard has received the only ‘A+’ grade from the panel of experts, who rate dashboards on a variety of criteria that include frequency of updates, what data are reported and whether they’re easy to read.

“Their mission behind this whole effort is to encourage colleges and universities to be as transparent as possible with their COVID-19 strategies, including the community impact,” said Eric Mayberry, senior manager of data analytics in Ohio State’s Office of the Chief Information Officer and a co-creator of Ohio State’s dashboard, in a statement on the university’s website.

At Penn State, Nick Jones, executive vice president and provost,
told students and parents on 4 October in a virtual Town Hall event that the university is struggling to ensure that all students comply with the institution’s random surveillance testing programme.

Kelly Wolgast, director of the Penn State COVID-19 Operations Control Centre, emphasised that the random surveillance testing isn’t meant as an individual diagnostic instrument, but a crucial tool for Penn State to understand the overall health of the campus population.

She said random surveillance testing allows the university to anticipate and put into place mitigation strategies, such as increasing pop-up and walk-up testing, should they be needed.

But Jones said: “Some students are not fulfilling their testing responsibilities – either by delaying their testing or opting for commercial tests that are not reported to the university. This not only doesn’t allow for your proper treatment, but also it puts your friends and family at great risk because we cannot effectively contact trace, mitigate and monitor cases,” he said.

UK minister demands government action

In the UK, Gillian Keegan, minister for skills and apprenticeships, said the government had to act to stem the rise in cases.“This is serious – it is getting out of control, and we have to do something to bring it back under control,” she said.

But one of the areas in which cases have been rising fast is in university campuses.

On 8 October, it was reported that more than 1,003 students out of 28,000 at Newcastle University had tested positive between 1 October and 7 October in a mass outbreak of cases and they had all been told to self-isolate. Twelve staff members also tested positive. Lectures and seminars were cancelled for three weeks as the university sought to curb the spread of infection.

A university spokesperson said: “This data represents students and staff within Newcastle city with the overwhelming majority of cases from social and residential settings.”

Nearby, at Northumbria University, also located in Newcastle, it was reported on 3 October that 770 students had tested positive for COVID-19 between 17 September and 1 October and those who tested positive plus flatmates and close contacts were asked to self-isolate. In a statement, the university said it was supporting those affected by providing food and other essential items, such as laundry and cleaning materials.

The university was offering “welfare support, including 24/7 online mental health support and one-on-one support from our wellbeing teams”, according to the statement.

Other university cities, including Sheffield, Leeds, Oxford, Exeter and Nottingham were facing the possibility of local lockdowns being ordered after the discovery of a blunder in the test and trace system that missed 16,000 cases between 25 September and 2 October. Case numbers in those cities have risen significantly.

Greg Fell director of Public Health for Sheffield City Council, told British radio host and television presenter Nick Ferrari on 6 October LBC that the rate in Sheffield had risen dramatically in the past week from 91.8 to 233.1 per 100,000, and access to this information would have been critical in helping the area avoid a local lockdown.

“The backlog of cases that were uploaded over the weekend have now more than doubled our rate very suddenly,” he said. “It is principally due to university students arriving, as is the case with most university towns.”

When asked what actions Sheffield will be taking to try to combat the sharp rise in cases, Fell said: “We’ve intensified our actions across all bases, we’re upping communication with the 18-30 age group and working a lot with the universities.

“To their credit, the universities have prepared as well as they could, both in terms of managing cases and welfare for those who are isolating.”

Across the UK, a growing number of universities have suffered serious outbreaks in the past few weeks and more than 50 institutions had confirmed cases of COVID-19. On 2 October Manchester University told 1,700 students to self-isolate for a fortnight after outbreaks in halls of residence. This follows earlier outbreaks at Liverpool University and Glasgow University.

Following the outbreak in Manchester University, University College Union general secretary Jo Grady warned that, without urgent action, it would only be a matter of weeks before all teaching was online due to staff being in contact with people infected with COVID-19 or have it themselves.

Grady told the BBC that the Manchester incident was “the latest catastrophe in a week where wholly predictable – and predicted – COVID outbreaks had caused havoc on campuses across the UK”. She urged university leaders to drop face-to-face classes until the government improves the test-and-trace system.

Speaking to Sky News, Grady said: “We warned last month of the problems with moving thousands of students across the country and the time has come for urgent action from ministers and universities to protect staff and students. Manchester Metropolitan University shifting teaching online only for foundation and first-year students exposes the total absurdity of the current position of trying to continue with blended learning.”

The union also told The Guardian that it is being deluged with pleas for help from staff on precarious contracts who feel unable to refuse to teach face-to-face, but are deeply fearful of the risks.

University staff have voiced sympathy for students who are “forced to go to university and sit in their rented accommodation, often rented from the university, and stew”.

“I suspect not all but many are getting nothing, and probably less, out of their uni experience than they would in the relative safety of their homes,” one lecturer who wished to remain anonymous told the Express.

“After all, who could have predicted that bringing thousands of people together from all over the country, and other countries, in confined spaces would not risk an explosion in infections? It was sheer lunacy and a lot of staff are angry about it, and not just because of how it affects them.”