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Rice Finds COVID-19 Rate Lower Than Originally Thought

August 24, 2021

Rice University announced last week that the first two weeks of classes this semester would be online because of the Delta variant. It cited high rates of the variant at Rice and in Houston.

Now the university says it is sticking to two weeks of online classes, but that its data on Rice were incorrect. A statement from Kevin E. Kirby, vice president for administration, explained, "Over the last 9 days we’ve run about 4,500 tests. The initial results for this period showed 81 positive results, with about half coming in a single day on Thursday. This positivity rate of 2 percent is much lower than the surrounding community. (The average during the past week for Texas Medical Center testing is about 15 percent, and for the entire city of Houston it’s more than 20 percent.) But for Rice, a 2 percent rate would be significantly higher than our historical positivity rate of 0.24 percent over the last year when we ran about 150,000 tests."

He continued, "When we examined the results a few days ago, we suspected something was wrong. Those results didn’t seem right for a number of reasons: Over 90 percent of the positive infections came from a single test provider; three-quarters of the positive tests were from people who reported no symptoms; the positive results were widely scattered across various groups in our population, with only one potential cluster that seemed more likely to be associated with their proximity to a particular testing location; and over 90 percent of the reported infections were for people who were fully vaccinated. We then reviewed the detailed data and noted some very unusual patterns in the results that suggested there was a possible issue with a testing provider rather than a broader campus outbreak. When we consulted with that provider, we learned that they had begun using a different protocol than they had previously used at Rice, resulting in significant differences in how test results are decided. This change in testing protocol had not been disclosed to Rice. We asked that they immediately revert to their prior testing protocol and they have done so. Then we retested about 50 people who initially tested positive. Each of them was tested two additional times, on two different days, by two different test providers, and all but one came back negative. Based on the anomalies and the two follow-up negative tests from other providers, we concluded that these people who were previously treated as positive were in fact negative, so they were released from isolation. The people whose positive tests were verified remain in isolation."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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