Mitigation efforts can prevent most COVID-19 cases on college campuses

Dec. 30, 2020

As colleges and universities consider strategies for the spring semester to keep COVID-19 cases down, a study conducted by experts in epidemic modeling may help shed light on what mitigation strategies may be most effective, both in terms of infections prevented and cost, according to a press release.

Investigators from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital and Case Western Reserve University used the Clinical and Economic Analysis of COVID-19 interventions (CEACOV) model to perform their study, finding that combining a mandatory mask-wearing policy with extensive social distancing would prevent 87 percent of infections among students and faculty. Routine testing was also highly effective at preventing infections but may be cost prohibitive for many colleges and universities.

The team also reports that, even if campuses remain closed, there would likely be infections among faculty acquired from the surrounding community, as well as infections among students who return to live off campus in and around college towns. Results were published in Annals of Internal Medicine.

The team evaluated 24 mitigation strategies based on four approaches: social distancing, mask-wearing policies, isolation, and laboratory testing. The team compared results from a minimal social distancing program, in which only large gatherings such as sporting events or concerts were cancelled, and an extensive social distancing program, where all large classes and 50 percent of smaller classes were delivered online. Laboratory testing ranged from no testing of asymptomatic students and faculty to routine testing at 14-, 7-, or 3-day intervals.

The team’s modeling predicted that:

·  Without any mitigation efforts, approximately 75 percent of students and 16 percent of faculty would become infected on a college campus.

·   Closing the campus would reduce student infections by 63 percent with most infections coming from those students living off campus.

·   Student infections would be reduced by only 16 percent with minimum social distancing.

·    Universal masking would be more effective in preventing infections than either minimum or extensive social distancing.

·    A mask-wearing policy with extensive social distancing would prevent 87 percent of infections among students and faculty and would cost $170 per infection prevented.

·    Adding routine laboratory testing to a policy involving extensive social distancing and mask-wearing reduced infections the most, but at a high cost/infection prevented.

While the researchers tried to capture the major COVID-19 mitigation strategies colleges are considering, the study could not examine all strategies and the analysis was restricted to one semester.

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