Will a Louisiana university tell you how much coronavirus there is on campus? Maybe

Some schools disclose coronavirus cases. Others choose not to do so.

By: - August 17, 2020 8:57 pm
LSU Clock Tower

(Photo by Julie O’Donoghue/Louisiana Illuminator)

Whether university students and staff know how widespread coronavirus is on their campuses is being left up to their school administrators. The state has offered no guidance about what the schools should disclose to the public regarding COVID-19 cases as campuses open up for fall classes. 

That decision has been left up to the individual higher education institutions — and their approaches are wildly different. 

Southern University has been keeping a running tally of COVID-19 cases among students and employees since March 31. It’s updated every weekday, and the information is broken down by each campus in the system, wrote Janene Tate, a Southern spokeswoman, in an email last week. 

The University of Louisiana-Lafayette plans to do something similar. The school was working last week to set up an electronic dashboard for tracking campus coronavirus cases modeled after the one used by the University of Texas at Austin, Eric Maron, a spokesman for the school, said last week.

Tulane University, a private institution, is requiring its students and staff to get tested by the school at least once per month during the fall semester. It will release the campus-wide results of that testing every week online, said Keith Brannon, the school’s spokesman.

Louisiana Tech was sending out press releases about people on campus who tested positive for COVID-19 during its summer session, but doesn’t know how it will handle that type of information moving forward. It has a little bit more time to come up with a plan, since it doesn’t start classes until September.

At least four public universities — including Louisiana’s largest higher education institution and flagship campus at LSU — won’t disclose how many students and staff test positive for COVID-19 this fall. LSU used to publicly post its coronavirus cases public last spring, but has since removed that information from its website, said Ernie Ballard, the school’s spokesman.

Northwestern State University, University of New Orleans and Nicholls State University also said last week they won’t be sharing information about infection rates and virus case counts. 

“We do not have a policy on releasing numbers on campus,” said Jennifer Kelly, Northwestern’s director of university affairs. 

Some universities  said they run into challenges releasing data because they have to comply with restrictive federal privacy laws known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

LSU took down its old COVID-19 tracker, in part because of concerns from its attorneys about privacy laws, Ballard said. Louisiana Tech’s worries over privacy laws are part of what has made coming up with a system of coronavirus reporting complicated, said Tonya Oaks Smith, a Louisiana Tech spokeswoman. 

Yet schools around the country subjected to the same privacy laws are finding ways to disclose information. The University of California, Berkeley provides daily coronavirus test results for students and staff going back several weeks on its website. 

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s COVID-19 dashboard was cited in several news reports about that school’s decision to return to an all online class schedule Monday. It shows UNC’s COVID-19 positive test rate jumping from 2.6 percent to 13.6 percent this week, just a few days after fall classes resumed. 

LSU is collecting campus-wide data and doing some institution-sponsored testing similar to what has been made public at UT-Austin, UC-Berkeley and UNC-Chapel Hill. All LSU students and staff are required to report whether they have experienced coronavirus symptoms through a phone app daily.

They are also required to tell LSU if they test positive for COVID-19 or have been in close contact with a person who has COVID-19. Students are encouraged to get tested at the student health center on campus, and the school is also testing a sample size of its population repeatedly to monitor the spread of the disease in its community.

But some universities with fewer resources are relying almost entirely on students and staff to report tests they might have gotten off campus, which could make disclosure more difficult.

Nicholls State University chose not to make its number of positive COVID-19 tests public because it can’t be sure it’s getting accurate information,said Jerad David, spokesman for the school. Many of its students are commuters with jobs and the number of positive cases they disclose to the university is likely to be an undercount, David said. 

“We don’t want to put out any misleading numbers,” he said. 

The University of New Orleans believes it would be better if state health officials — not the higher education institutions — tracked campus coronavirus cases in Louisiana, said Adam Norris, spokesman for the school. 

“Case reporting is really the domain of public health officials at the local and state level. We aren’t able to generate case reports with the same accuracy and integrity they do. The reason is this: The only way the University becomes aware of a positive test from a student or employee is if that person self-reports,” he said in an email. 

The Louisiana Department of Health releases daily coronavirus information on communities around the state — in some ways at a more granular level than would be required for college campuses. For example, residents of  Tensas Parish receive daily updates on the percentage of positive tests in their community, the number of active COVID-19 cases and deaths. With fewer than 5,000 people, that parish is much smaller than most of the state’s public universities. 

The state health agency also releases limited data about universities and colleges already. It’s attributed four COVID-19 outbreaks — for a total of 151 cases overall — back to university and college campuses.

But the health department still thinks that higher education institutions need to “take the lead” when it comes to reporting coronavirus cases and infections rates on their own campuses, said Kevin Litten, spokesman for the department.

Public higher education leaders are expected to meet with Alex Billioux, Louisiana’s top public health official, Wednesday to talk further about whether cases should be reported.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.