LSU reverses course, says it will disclose some coronavirus data

Louisiana’s flagship university started posting coronavirus case counts Wednesday

By: - August 19, 2020 9:48 pm
LSU Clock Tower

LSU’s War Memorial Tower looms over portions of the Baton Rouge campus. (Photo by Julie O’Donoghue/Louisiana Illuminator)

LSU administrators have changed their minds about publicly disclosing information about coronavirus cases on campus a few days after it was reported that the school was going to keep data about the virus in its population private.

But the information that LSU will offer about COVID-19 cases among its 40,000 students and staff won’t be extensive. So far, the information will be limited to  a total case count for the campus. The university will not be disclosing where the cases on campus might be clustered or whether they are primarily affecting students or staff.

Other states universities in Louisiana still don’t have plans to offer public information about the number of cases associated with their campuses, though Gov. John Bel Edwards assured citizens there would be transparency about college coronavirus spread.

“We do believe there needs to be accurate data that is made public by the universities,” Edwards said at a press conference Tuesday. “We want people to have confidence in what we are doing. And what we do know is that if you are not sharing data — quickly and transparently — that undermines confidence.”

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette will continue to be the only campus in the University of Louisiana system that plans to publicly release the number of cases among its students and staff.

The eight other universities in the system have no plans to do the same, in part because some of them are commuter schools where a majority of students spend most of their time living and working off campus, said Jim Henderson, the system’s president.

Eighty percent of our students drive home for supper,” he said. 

Outcry from students, parents and faculty pushed LSU into disclosing some of its numbers. Three large universities in other states — the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Michigan State and Notre Dame — recently reverted to online-only classes after troubling outbreaks on their campuses.

Some in the LSU community worried they wouldn’t know if such an outbreak occurred on the Baton Rouge campus. The school had originally said it was concerned that posting the number of coronavirus cases present among its 40,000 students and staff could violate federal privacy laws, but has since concluded that isn’t as much of a concern.

“We are obviously concerned about privacy, but we really want to be as transparent as we possibly can,” said Thomas Galligan, LSU’s interim president. “For our community — and the community at large — having information about aggregate tests matters to people.”

It’s not clear how much the numbers LSU is posting will enlighten the public about what’s going on at the school, though.

LSU requires students and staff to report daily if they tested positive for coronavirus or had exposure to COVID-19. The university plans to update its total number of coronavirus cases among students and staff weekly, Galligan said. But that figure will include people who have tested positive and who are both living and going to school remotely. 

In other words, a LSU student who tests positive for COVID-19 while living at their parents house in Texas and taking classes online would still be included in the school’s count that appears on its website, Galligan said.

LSU has also no plans to break down its total coronavirus cases further. It will not report which cases can be attributed to students or staff, as other large public universities have done. It will not report whether the cases are associated with people who live in dormitories, Greek houses or off-campus in Baton Rouge. It will not report if there is an outbreak among a specific cohort of the community, such as college athletes. These types of reporting would cause privacy concerns, Galligan said. 

LSU also doesn’t plan to reveal the results of its campus sample testing — wherein it will repeatedly test a smaller group of students and staff repeatedly to get a grasp on the spread of COVID-19 among the wider community. Again, Galligan said that would pose privacy concerns.

But the number of LSU’s cases is likely to increase over the next few weeks, if only because testing on campus will rapidly expand. The state is providing two large-scale testing sites to LSU, and the university is contracting with a private company to open a third testing location, Galligan said. The state sites will be open to LSU students, staff and the wider Baton Rouge community. 

Galligan said clusters of cases at LSU would be tracked by the Louisiana Department of Health, but currently the state doesn’t provide the specifics of university and college outbreaks. Its website states that it’s aware of four outbreaks related to “college/universities” in general — for a total of 158 cases.  

Louisiana higher education leaders and the state’s public health leader, Alex Billioux, met Wednesday afternoon to discuss how universities should manage and interpret their coronavirus data. The governor promised the state would be watching campuses closely.

“We’re going to be looking for trends and potential problems — trying to make sure we are identifying those as early as possible. Digging into the data to see how reopening affects our numbers,” Edwards said Tuesday. 

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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 | 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.