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COVID-19 testing at the Nielsen Tennis Stadium at the University of Wisconsin at Madison

Andy Manis/Getty Images

Last August, as students were returning to campuses across the country, the United States was between two waves of COVID-19. Case counts across the country were fairly low, at least in comparison to where we’ve found ourselves now.

Still, a number of large, mostly public, universities went through what seemed to some to be disaster situations. With thousands of students infected, some universities sent students home to family. Others soldiered on as cases rose -- over the loud protests of campus instructors.

This semester, those institutions that put up the highest numbers for student case counts appear to be doing better. They have fewer cases and are, on the whole, performing more testing. While some of the numbers may still be worrisome, representing hundreds of students infected, they are often a far cry from the record-breaking tallies reported in the fall.

The University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, for example, had 2,184 student cases 22 days into the fall semester. This term, the university has reported only 591.

The University of Wisconsin at Madison has similarly seen fewer cases than last semester. Thirteen days into its semester, the university has cataloged 366 student cases. Last semester at the same time it reported 1,321.

In many cases universities have increased testing. UW Madison, for example, is testing students twice weekly this semester, a model pioneered by others like Colby College and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign last year. Testing has gotten cheaper and easier for universities to perform, and some institutions have even brought the process in-house to their own labs.

Some of the difference this year could also be due to simple things that come with the new semester. Auburn University, now three weeks into its semester, is similarly doing better. Currently with 188 cases, the university last year saw 794 at this same time.

Auburn controversially did not require re-entry testing this semester, despite doing so in the fall. But the administration did launch a sentinel testing program to test about 10 percent of the student body per week.

But officials at Auburn said that despite the nationwide rise in cases, they expected different dynamics to be at play now compared to the fall. While incoming freshmen are often eager to find friends and maybe participate in rush events, by the spring, many of their social lives have settled down.

One other potential factor is also the conferred immunity from a COVID-19 infection. There is still no consensus on how long a person is immune to COVID-19 after having recovered from an infection, although some studies have suggested one can remain immune for several months. College campuses that saw large numbers of students -- and in some cases, their least careful students -- infected could have some barrier against large spikes. Some colleges, such as Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, have said that students who caught the virus in the fall are exempt from re-entry testing.

“Previously positive students definitely have some protection,” said Richard Friend, dean of Alabama’s College of Community Health Sciences and a member of the university’s health and safety task force. “I think that has helped.” Alabama also ramped up sentinel testing and geographic testing, testing all students in an area where others have been positive.

At some colleges, the share of students who were previously infected is significant. A peer-reviewed study released last month suggested that universities such as Brigham Young University, the University of Kentucky and the University of Notre Dame had seen over 10 percent of their students infected. At Clemson University, 22 percent of students were infected by the year’s end. The study also suggested that the first two weeks of the semester are critical for an institution, with many colleges seeing infection peaks within that time frame.

Some universities have pointed to increased compliance from students.

Illinois State University saw 1,299 student infections 25 days into its fall semester. But this semester, in the same time frame, the university has only reported 183 cases. Officials there have said off-campus gatherings contributed to the early spike last fall.

“In the wake of one such gathering, some students faced disciplinary action under the university's code of student conduct. The Town of Normal also passed an ordinance regulating the size of gatherings in the areas around the campus,” a spokesperson for the university said via email. “These factors, along with further communication from the university resulted in better compliance with health and safety guidelines -- and a general decrease in the number of positive cases -- during the remainder of the fall semester. That general trend continues this semester.”

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill garnered significant news coverage last August when it sent students home nine days into the semester. Fifteen days into its fall term, the university had seen 763 student cases. This year, a similar distance into the semester, only 253 students had tested positive.

“Our Carolina Together testing program is certainly making a difference,” said Kevin Guskiewicz, chancellor at Chapel Hill. “By the end of this week, we will have conducted close to 40,000 tests.” Last semester the university had performed under 2,000. Health and safety violations and citations are also down this semester, Guskiewicz said.

Of course, not everywhere is doing better than before. Some colleges that kept case counts low in the fall have faced challenges in the new term.

Duke University, for example, has seen 199 student cases since Jan. 3. Its total for the entire fall term was only 152. Some of those cases can be traced to infections students brought with them from home. At the start of last semester, Duke’s re-entry testing caught 26 students with positive cases, officials said. This semester, that number was 56.

“For the spring semester, we expected that more students would be positive on arrival due to the prevalence in the community, and nationally, which is much greater today than it was in the fall,” a spokesperson for the university said via email.

But despite the increase, Duke’s case count is still lower than what some other institutions are reporting. “Relative to the size of our total university community of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff, the incidence of COVID-19 is a fraction the general population, though the increase over the past months is concerning,” the spokesperson said.

Duke is testing students twice weekly and has offered only single-occupancy dorms.

Similarly, Union College, a small liberal arts college in New York, has seen about 92 cases of COVID-19. That is nearly four times its total for the fall.

“Do not expect that the actions you took in the fall will have the same effects this winter,” President David Harris advised other college presidents in an opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed. “Do not bring students back to campus unless you are prepared to have more positive cases -- perhaps significantly more.”

Union is seeing more cases despite ramping up testing to twice per week and has secured more rooms for quarantine and isolation.

“Whenever students are coming to the campus for the first time, especially when they’re coming from areas of the country where there’s a high amount of COVID incidence, when they come to campus they will bring COVID with them,” said Chris Marsicano, director of the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College. “I don’t know that it is cause for alarm as long as institutions respond in kind” by limiting student mobility and moving some aspects of campus life online, he said.

Institutional leaders report that they have learned from their peers and their communities about how to best keep cases low.

“We are an institution of higher learning,” Guskiewicz, of Chapel Hill, said. “And we need to be willing at every level to learn and improve.”

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