Yale School of Public Health researchers created a simulation: a hypothetical campus of 5,000 students where 10 are asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19. They found the safest way to reopen a campus like that was to enforce strict guidelines like distancing and mask-wearing. But that wasn't enough.
"What we believe our model says is that there's a safe way for students to return to college in the fall, the key element of which is high-frequency screening – like, every two days," said the study's lead researcher David Paltiel, a professor of health policy and management at Yale.
"And when I say screening, I'm talking about testing everyone for the SARS-CoV-2 virus," he added.
Paltiel understands that's a big lift, but he still thinks it's necessary.
"You can't equate 'it's not practical' with 'it's not important,'" he said. "If you really don't think it's practical, then ask yourself if you have any business reopening."
In a recent CNN opinion piece penned by Paltiel and study co-author Rochelle Walensky, chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, they say such frequent testing would cost between $120 and $910 per student for the semester – "a high price but one that won't be prohibitive for many schools."
The analysis doesn't factor in contact tracing, and Paltiel cautions that it's a mathematical simulation, not a real-world study. So it doesn't account for every single thing that can go right – or wrong – when reopening a college.
Another Yale analysis from earlier this month found something similar, recommending testing every three days for a college campus to reopen. But an invited commentary on Paltiel's study shows that not everyone agrees on the specifics. Elizabeth H. Bradley, president of Vassar College, led that commentary and said that other safeguards, like teleworking and integrated distancing strategies, could require fewer tests to arrive at the same safe result.
The authors acknowledge that the study's recommendations may be beyond many schools' capacities, but, as a Yale news release warns, "the adverse consequences of an outbreak will be disproportionately visited upon the non-student members of a college community – its staff, faculty, and the more vulnerable members of the surrounding community."
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.