Tulane students have been back on campus for almost four weeks. In that time, there’s been a marked increase in the number of asymptomatic COVID-19 cases among undergraduate students, according to the university’s Office of Campus Health.
Update: Tulane University experienced a spike in cases on Tuesday, when 54 individuals tested positive for COVID-19, according to its COVID-19 dashboard, which launched Friday.
The dashboard includes data as recent as Sept. 2 and will be updated daily with results from two days prior. Tulane says the lag time is necessary to “confirm all results and ensure an accurate count.”
As of Wednesday, Tulane had 267 active cases of COVID-19. Since July 28, 320 students and 13 faculty members have tested positive. The school’s average percent positive rate over seven days is 4.2 percent — higher than the city’s, but lower than the state’s.
From Aug. 19 to Aug. 26, the university administered almost 2,500 tests and identified 73 positive cases of COVID-19. This puts the positivity rate at 2.9 percent — higher than the city’s average rate, but lower than the state’s.
It’s also higher than the baseline test. Out of approximately 12,000 tests, there were 82 positive cases. That’s a positivity rate to less than 1 percent.
“Results like this are not unexpected given the scope of our testing and contact tracing program,” Campus Health wrote in an email to the Tulane community earlier this week. “We are monitoring these numbers closely and adjusting our health strategies accordingly.”
In another email, Dean of Students Erica Woodley noted that the increase isn’t surprising given what’s happening at colleges across the country. As students return to campus, almost all schools have seen their numbers climb, whether it’s by a few or a few hundred cases.
The first weeks are critical in assessing the extent to which the virus is likely to spread and whether the proper safety measures are in place. At some schools, case counts have quickly ballooned, forcing administrators to send students home just weeks after their arrival.
In response to the uptick in cases, Tulane, which serves more than 13,000 students, is ramping up its surveillance testing. This week the school opened a new testing center in Phelps Hall where the 4,000 undergraduates who live on campus will be tested twice a week. The original plan called for students to be tested just once a week.
“Since our on-campus students live in the settings with the greatest density, increasing our testing there is the most effective way to reduce transmission of the virus and make everyone safer,” Woodley wrote in an email this week. “This increased testing, followed by isolating the students who test positive and quarantining those who are close contacts of those positive cases, will greatly aid our effort to get ahead — and stay ahead — of this virus.”
But increased testing may not be enough. Yesterday, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has rigorously tested its students, reported a rising number of positive coronavirus cases and announced a two-week lockdown.
Researchers had previously praised the University of Illinois, which has about 50,000 students, as a model for school reopening because of its aggressive testing plan. They’re conducting more than 10,000 COVID-19 tests everyday. It’s one of the largest testing programs in the country. Like Tulane, they’re testing all undergraduates twice a week.
Rebecca Lee Smith, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois who helped design the university’s testing plan wrote on Twitter: “We cannot test our way out of this pandemic.”
Schools also need to have rigorous health and safety standards in place. At Tulane, masks are mandatory and social distancing enforced. Common areas are cleaned frequently, there’s temperature checkpoints and capacity limits.
Some have even cautioned that regular testing can give students a false sense of security and experts have continued to remind administrators just how important it is to make sure students understand how the virus spreads and the impact their individual actions can have on the larger community.
More than 200 students are in quarantine due to possible exposure
As of Aug. 28, Tulane reported 86 active cases of COVID-19. Of those, 84 are students and 2 are employees. Fifty-nine students are currently isolated in Patterson Hall, Tulane’s dedicated quarantine facility for students who test positive.
Paterson Hall has a 110-bed capacity and medical staff on hand. The students quarantining there are either asymptomatic or experiencing mild symptoms, according to Campus Health. The other positive individuals are currently isolated off campus.
Another 224 students who had close contact with a positive case are currently isolated and 76 of them are quarantining in the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Tulane has access to its own hotel tower separate from other guests, with a 500-bed capacity. If either facility hits capacity, Tulane said it has overflow plans in place.
If a student tests positive, they’re required to isolate for 10 days. Students who are in close contact with someone who tests positive are required to isolate for 14 days. Students are not allowed to stay in their dorm room and must move off campus or to one of Tulane’s facilities.
By the end of this week, Tulane plans to launch a reporting dashboard with “key numbers around testing and positives.” The information will be updated daily.
Louisiana’s colleges and universities are working with the state’s Department of Health to develop a state-monitored reporting system, though it's unclear what information will be made available to the public.
Louisiana State University recently launched its own dashboard. As of Sept. 1, it had recorded 366 positive cases of COVID-19 among a community of more than 40,000 students, faculty and staff. Dillard University’s dashboard, which is updated on Fridays, showed seven positive cases since Aug. 1, but no new cases as of Aug. 21. In a typical year, Dillard’s enrollment is around 1,200 students.
Unlike Tulane, LSU and Dillard are not conducting surveillance testing and instead rely on students and faculty to self-report positive test results or possible exposure.