By: Corey Kalbaugh, assistant professor, Lior Rennert, assistant professor, Christopher McMahan, associate professor
As the coronavirus pandemic rages into November, scrutiny continues on educational institutions. While questions abound regarding school and university safety, Clemson University has taken a novel approach to this novel virus: testing as many students and employees as possible.
As the epidemiologists and data scientists leading Clemson’s public health strategy team, we feel the need to provide valuable context to the university’s testing strategy and case count.
What Clemson is facing is not unique — and it is not the only campus with a high number of cases. The difference is the university’s robust and repetitive testing strategies for students regardless of symptoms, and even, at times, exposure. As such, cases appear higher. In doing so, positive cases have been removed from the population, simultaneously limiting the on-campus spread and surrounding communities through isolation and quarantine procedures.
The results? Clemson has remained open and reduced the spread of COVID-19 in tangible ways.
Early on, our models showed requiring student testing before returning to campus would reduce the spread and minimize peak cases during the semester. Before beginning face-to-face instruction on Sept. 21, nearly 3,000 students tested positive for COVID, numbers accounted for in the university’s dashboard. Approximately 1,400 of these were self-reported throughout the summer, while 1,600 were identified through pre-semester testing — these individuals were required to isolate at home prior to their on-campus arrival. Those 3,000 results prevented infected students from returning to campus and spreading the virus exponentially.
Since the initial testing, Clemson’s COVID positive rate has continued to decrease. From a high point of 6.7% in late September, it has dropped weekly — as has the population using isolation and quarantine accommodations. While most of the credit should rightfully lie with students’ responsible behavior, testing strategies have undoubtedly contributed to the decreasing positives.
CLEMSON’S COMMITMENT TO THE LARGER COMMUNITY
For much of the year, college and university campuses become home to millions of students. As they prepare to embark on their journey home for the holidays, testing now is more important than ever.
And as a land-grant university, Clemson’s responsibility is not only to our students but to every citizen of South Carolina.
Reducing Clemson’s testing procedures, thus limiting these abilities to identify cases, would mean potentially sending COVID-positive students back to their communities with vulnerable populations. As leaders in education and research, Clemson will continue to let science guide our decisions to ensure our student and employee population’s safety.