The University of Florida no longer publishes data about COVID-19 case counts on campus. As of Jan. 1, the university stopped updating its COVID-19 dashboard and began directing requests for data to the Florida Department of Health.
Other major research universities have not followed suit. But Florida’s decision to discontinue its COVID-19 dashboard raises questions about whether and for how much longer other colleges will maintain public-facing websites with data about COVID on campus and what purposes those dashboards are serving at this point in the pandemic.
Michael Lauzardo, an associate professor in the division of infectious diseases and global medicine at UF, said he proposed eliminating the dashboard because of concerns about the quality of the data. He said some students are taking at-home tests and not necessarily reporting the results. Some students with potential COVID symptoms are forgoing testing altogether so as not to be barred from campus facilities.
And under state law—and unlike at the beginning of the pandemic—the university cannot require any student to test (or get vaccinated or wear a mask, for that matter). Lauzardo said the proportion of students who voluntarily test after their building is flagged in the university’s COVID sewage-monitoring program fell over the course of the pandemic from about 50 percent to 1 to 2 percent by the middle of last fall.
“I just think we need to end the presentation of bad data,” said Lauzardo, who wrote about the unreliability of the data and the decision to stop updating the database in an op-ed for The Washington Post.
Others have raised alarms about the decision to discontinue UF’s dashboard.
A group of professors wrote in an op-ed for The Gainesville Sun that “a local COVD-19 dashboard provides critical information about what is happening locally, particularly in an area to which thousands of students and visitors come from around the state and nation.”
The professors also raised concerns about the accuracy and timeliness of the weekly data on COVID cases provided by the Florida Department of Health.
“As a public research institution with strong public health and epidemiological research capacity, UF has a mission to provide accurate public health information and an obligation to set an example of accuracy and reliability, especially when other institutions fail to do so,” they wrote.
Mark Hostetler, one of the authors of the op-ed and a professor in UF’s department of wildlife ecology and conservation, said even “imperfect data” are useful.
“Is it raining COVID outside,” he asked, “or is it sprinkling?”
Similar to UF, West Virginia University initially planned to stop reporting positive test results on its dashboard this spring, focusing only on vaccination rates. But the university reversed course and decided to continue including test results and information about isolation after faculty, students and staff voiced concerns.
“Although WVU has decided to once again include certain data points related to COVID-19 testing in its public dashboard, this information should be taken in context,” Carmen Burrell, medical director of WVU Medicine Student Health and Urgent Care, said in a statement. “The testing data the University currently captures does not account for self-tests, surveillance or sample testing—it primarily [comprises] symptomatic individuals and those considered close contacts to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. As such, positivity rates may appear artificially inflated since the overall number of tests we are administering to potentially healthy individuals this semester is much lower.”
From the beginning of the pandemic, approaches to dashboards have varied widely among universities, and the quality of the dashboard was dependent on the quality of the underlying testing data.
“Unless an institution is testing every student once or twice a week, the data presented in them was not particularly accurate and helpful only in that it showed trends among a very self-selected group that came in for testing or were randomly selected into testing and not necessarily a great picture of the public heath situation on the ground,” said Christopher R. Marsicano, an assistant professor of educational studies at Davidson College in North Carolina, where he heads the College Crisis Initiative, a research project studying colleges’ responses to the pandemic. “The irony in all this is faculty, students and families love dashboards, because it gives them a sense of feeling like the campus is doing something about the COVID pandemic. While the data in them isn’t particularly great at lots of places, the impact in terms of supporting mental health and making people feel safe is very good.”
Marsicano said the cynical part of him “says some of these dashboards are going away because institutions don’t want to share how poorly they’re doing.” But, he added, another part of him thinks “the dashboards may have outlived their usefulness given the complexities of the situation.”
Marsicano said some regional public institutions and small private colleges scaled back or discontinued their databases over the summer, while public research universities and wealthy private institutions kept them going. He added that very few community colleges had a dashboard to begin with.
Matthew Boedy, president of the American Association of University Professors’ Georgia chapter and associate professor of rhetoric/composition at the University of North Georgia, regularly checks college dashboards across the state for a spreadsheet he keeps of college case counts.
“It’s a Wild West of all the different types of information that the schools put out, and it’s all in different formats and platforms,” Boedy said.
Among Georgia colleges, Georgia State University stopped updating its dashboard with self-reported COVID test results as of this month and is now only reporting results from surveillance testing. A university spokeswoman did not provide a reason for the change. Fort Valley State University has not updated its dashboard since October and did not respond to a request for comment about whether or when it will resume updates. Georgia Southeastern State University never had a public-facing COVID dashboard to begin with: a spokeswoman said the college communicates its numbers internally via a weekly campuswide email sent by the president.
North Carolina State University’s dashboard is “under revision” and currently does not feature the graphs and charts it once did. A spokesman said university staff members “are currently updating the dashboard to accommodate changes in the way we internally track cases as well as changes to our isolation policy. N.C. State will continue to track and report daily cases, on-campus testing numbers—including positivity rate—and vaccine data.”
“This provides our students, as well as our faculty and staff, with enough information to be transparent about our numbers and provide an accurate representation of COVID in our community,” a Xavier spokesman said. “Plus, the text-based option gives us the ability to add more of a weekly narrative, which allows us to convey our current campus situation differently than simply presenting data charts. We have remained one of the few institutions in our region who has yet to cancel or push back classes, or go online, other than the very beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. Currently, more than 95 percent of our students are vaccinated, and more than 96 percent of our faculty and staff are vaccinated. We also have an indoor mask policy in place.”
Dr. Howard Forman, a professor of public health at Yale University and a practicing physician who was one of the biggest proponents of college dashboards—he co-founded the “We Rate COVID Dashboards” group, which graded university dashboards through the first year of the pandemic—said dashboards play a different role than they did before vaccines were available.
“We’re at a very different stage right now,” Forman said. “A lot of places are managing this as a fait accompli, that there’s going to continue to be spread. Isolation practices are much less common. The notion that you would shut down a course or a school if there’s an outbreak is certainly not a fait accompli anywhere anymore. I would argue there’s still value in knowing what’s going on both for society and the campuses. It tells you what’s happening in the surrounding areas; it tells you what’s happening when large groups of people migrate to one central place and cohabit. But it doesn’t have the same importance that it did.
“I think every school is going to have to figure out how much the data they’re going to collect is going to influence their practice,” Forman added. “If the institution is not going to do anything, then by all means, just stop the dashboard. If it’s not informing anybody, if it’s not being used by anybody, then you don’t want to waste time.”