Reopening colleges may have caused tens of thousands of coronavirus cases: study

Reopening colleges and universities for in-person classes led to more than 3,000 new cases of coronavirus a day that otherwise would not have occurred, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Indiana University, the University of Washington and Davidson College participated in the study, according to The Wall Street Journal. They used GPS tracking data to analyze movements of people, including returning students, and determined the infection rates in counties where colleges were located during the period where campuses began reopening.

In cases where students moved back to near campus but were taking courses online, there was little change. However, they encountered larger spikes where in-person classes resumed, especially in places where students came to campus from other parts of the country with high infection rates.

An analysis of case numbers from every county in the U.S. found that 3,200 was the midpoint for estimated daily infection increases. The research indicated that resuming in-person class correlated with nearly 1,100 more cases per day, and at most 5,300 new cases. The paper has not yet been peer reviewed, but has been submitted for review to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“We’re not saying it was a terrible mistake to open,” Ana Bento, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at Indiana University who co-authored the study, told the WSJ. “Just that the influx of individuals, which was much greater where there is face-to-face [instruction], is correlated with a larger increase in cases.”

“Decisions to reopen are far more complex than just the question of, ‘Will cases increase or not?’” she added.

“We thought the public health implications were very important,” said co-author Martin Andersen, an assistant professor of economics at UNC Greensboro.

Although some of the uptick could tie into increased testing in counties with reopened campuses, Bento said these would have plateaued or declined after showing an initial spike.

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