(Photo by Julie O’Donoghue)
All Louisiana higher education institutions are expected to start sharing the number of coronavirus cases among students and staff on their campuses. The announcement came Wednesday, a day after a higher education official said most public universities in the state wouldn’t be sharing such information.
“We do believe that the information pertaining to these institutions of higher ed. should be reported,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a press conference about COVID-19 Thursday.
It’s not yet clear when the university reporting will start. Higher education institutions are hoping to be trained on how to work the new system next week, said Meg Casper, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Board of Regents.
Under the new statewide plan, colleges and universities — including two-and-four-year schools — will turn over the number of known COVID-19 cases on their campuses to the Louisiana Department of Health on a weekly basis. The case count will be broken down by students and staff. The Louisiana Department of Health will then publish the information on its website. Both public and private institutions are expected to participate, Casper said.
Officials at most four-year public universities in Louisiana had not planned on disclosing this information. They changed their minds after a meeting between higher education leaders and Alex Billioux, the head of the state’s public health office, on Wednesday evening.
At the public universities, the information released will be based on self-reporting — at least initially. That means the number of coronavirus cases disclosed will be based on the number of students and staff who tell their university that they have tested positive for COVID-19.
LSU is soliciting information about positive tests through a phone app. Students and staff are supposed to tell the university whether they have tested positive for the virus or have virus symptoms every day through the app. Louisiana Tech may also use an app to track the virus.
But some other public universities aren’t being as aggressive. They’ve asked that students and staff disclose whether they test positive, but they don’t think they can require it.
“How do you require that?” said Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana system, said in an interview Thursday. “There’s no real way to enforce that.”
The University of Louisiana system includes nine public universities.
Concerns about an inability to force participation was one of the initial reasons some university officials gave for not wanting to release the information in the first place. Both the University of New Orleans and Nicholls State University said previously that they thought their self-reporting case counts would be too unreliable.
Henderson had previously said that schools with large commuter populations — who might be working full time or living with their parents while taking classes — would struggle to collect this type of information. On Thursday, he reiterated that would be a challenge.
“Any time you have self-reported information, you have to take it with a grain of salt,” he said.
To get a more accurate picture of the spread of COVID-19 on campus, universities and colleges would have to perform their own testing — either for the virus or for antibodies left over after the virus is gone.
LSU has plans to do this type of testing on a portion of its community. Tulane University is testing all of its students and staff multiple times throughout the semester.
The University of Louisiana system is also planning to do its own testing, though it is waiting for tests that are easier to use to come online. It’s likely their school-sponsored testing will start at the University of Louisiana – Lafayette, which has laboratories and other infrastructure that would be helpful for a testing program, Henderson said. Eventually, the University of Louisiana – Lafayette might help other universities in its system to perform this type of testing, he said.
It’s not clear yet how the results of that school-sponsored testing will be released. Henderson said the University of Louisiana would be willing to share that information publicly. LSU Interim President Thomas Galligan said the school-sponsored testing being performed at LSU would likely be included in the numbers reported weekly to the Louisiana Department of Health. It would also be the subject of research projects and academic papers that would be made public, he said.
It’s also not clear how universities and colleges might be sharing information about concentrated outbreaks on campuses — ones that might be specific to a dormitory, athletic team, Greek organization or another cohort of students or staff.
The Louisiana Department of Health has been reporting outbreaks associated with universities and colleges on its website, but officials plan to remove that information because it is outdated. LSU and other schools have said they don’t expect to break out the data they are collecting by location or cohort of students. They think that type of information might violate federal privacy laws.
But Henderson said schools in the University of Louisiana system will make the public aware when an outbreak occurs. Louisiana Tech and the University of Louisiana – Lafayette both reported outbreaks among their athletic departments this summer. The University of New Orleans told the media Thursday it had to quarantine two dozen students living in a dormitory, according to the Advocate.
Colleges across the country are having a difficult time controlling coronavirus so far. Major outbreaks at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Michigan State University and the University of Notre Dame in Indiana have caused those schools to suspend all in-person classes.
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