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Youngstown State University among schools struggling to report COVID data

Colleges and universities are approaching the process of on-campus COVID-19 testing and sharing current data in different ways. YSU is confronting the issue of collecting data with so many students who are commuting and living in on-campus and off-campus housing.

YOUNGSTOWN — Five months into a pandemic and two weeks into the fall semester, a campus COVID-19 reporting dashboard is still in the works for Youngstown State University.

Many Ohio colleges are working to share COVID-19 testing results so students, employees, parents and others can be aware of the number of cases on campuses. Some are still working on creating a public dashboard, but others are not publicly reporting the statistics, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

Ohio State University has already created a dashboard, which launched Aug. 25, and is updated with information from Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. The dashboard includes the number of students and employees tested, the daily positive cases and the availability of on-campus isolation and quarantine.

Dr. Emily Frantz, an epidemiologist for Youngstown City Health Department, said the department plans to work with the university to set up a dashboard for YSU that will include the daily positive cases. The department is hoping to have a dashboard similar to the dashboard created by Texas Christian University

“The vision is that it would be a live dashboard or real close to real-time reporting,” Frantz said. Currently, the university is using spreadsheets and word of mouth to keep track of cases.

The university plans to have the dashboard created in the next week or two.

YSU President Jim Tressel is expected to present an update on Wednesday to the board of trustees regarding the number of COVID-19 cases and other statistics.

CAMPUSES ACROSS AMERICA

Since the COVID-19 pandemic shut the U.S. down last spring, all eyes are on colleges and universities, which have begun reopening campuses for the fall semester.

Lots of unknowns surround the fall semester, and information available to students, college communities and parents varies based on the school and its location. Some schools are actively testing and sharing results. YSU is not.

The New York Times created a map tracking coronavirus cases at colleges and universities across the United States. Many colleges have reported spikes in the past few weeks as dormitories have reopened and classes have started.

There have been about 26,000 cases reported at 750 institutions so far: Ohio State University has 495 cases; Ohio Wesleyan University has 23 cases; Ohio University has 22 cases; Ohio Northern University has three cases; and Northwest Ohio Medical University has three cases.

Other Ohio colleges are listed but have not reported cases. YSU is not included on the map.

DIFFERENT TESTING MODELS

Some institutions with on-campus laboratories are mandating frequent testing. At Harvard, students living in on-campus dorms and houses must be tested three days a week. On Aug. 27, Ohio State announced it would expand its surveillance testing program and randomly test a sample of 8,000 undergraduate students each week. Between Aug. 14-27, the university reported 495 cases among students.

Julie Gentile, director of YSU’s Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety, said it’s difficult for the university to keep track of cases since YSU is a commuter school. In addition to living in dorms or off-campus housing, many students commute to the university from different counties and Pennsylvania.

“We are still in the process of trying to gather the most accurate, up-to-date data from all the surrounding health departments to verify positive cases,” Gentile said.

Since Aug. 14, there have been nine reports through the university’s online reporting system. Gentile said students are asked to report any time they have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 when they travel, have symptoms or test positive through YSU's online reporting system.

Of the nine reports, eight of them have been for people who have been in contact with someone who tested positive. One report involves someone who tested positive for COVID-19 through Mahoning County Public Health.

The low numbers could be considered a win by the university. As of Aug. 26, the colleges with the highest number of cases in the country include the University of Alabama at Birmingham with 972 cases, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with 835 cases and the University of Central Florida with 727 cases.

Gentile said the university has to do quite a bit of legwork before it can publish data reflecting a confirmed case.

“We’re just not there yet because of the fact that our students are from multiple counties,” Gentile said.

The testing process is also complicated because the cases are reported by the address associated with a person’s health insurance, Gentile said. So if a student uses a parent’s out-of-county or out-of-state insurance, it is reported in that area instead of in Youngstown.

Gentile said the university did not expect it to be this complicated to be able to report cases.

“There’s just a lot of details that you have to figure out case-by-case by talking with that individual and then just following up and communicating with those counties in those states where people are,” Gentile said.

‘THEY DID ALL THEY COULD’

Linsey Alsdorf, a sophomore at YSU, said YSU President Tressel has told students it has been difficult to track cases since there are students commuting and living in off-campus housing.

Alsdorf said she does not spend too much time on campus due to her class schedule. She is not too concerned about cases since there have been protocols for sanitizing hands, cleaning desks and social distancing throughout campus.

“They really did all they could,” Alsdorf said.

The university has a partnership with Mercy Health’s Wick Primary Care that allows students, faculty and the public to get coronavirus testing next to campus at 330 Wick Ave. from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The facility accepts walk-ins, telehealth and scheduled appointments. The results for nasal tests usually take about three to four days.

Whether students have symptoms or not, or have been exposed to COVID-19, the university is letting them decide whether they should get tested, Gentile said.

“Some people are comfortable with just quarantining and waiting it out,” Gentile said. “Some people just for the peace of mind really would prefer to go be tested.”

Under recently changed national testing guidelines, the CDC is no longer recommending tests for those who have been in close contact with a coronavirus case — or who have been informed during the contact tracing process — but are otherwise asymptomatic.

The testing is sent through multiple labs for results, including Ohio State Reporting System and the Ohio Department of Health. QuickMed Urgent Care, One Health Ohio and 911 Rapid Care are test-administering agencies also used for testing students.

YSU and Mercy Health do not know the number of students who have been tested since testing is voluntary.

Frantz, the city’s epidemiologist, said the use of multiple labs is causing frustration since there is varied testing accuracy and turnaround time for the results. While students are able to get their test results quickly and directly from the lab, the caseload is causing lags for other interested entities.

“... [The lab is] supposed to report it to the health departments within 24 hours and that isn’t always occurring,” Frantz said.

RESULTS AND CONTACT TRACING

Delays in reporting results to health departments impact the process of contact tracing, which identifies those who might have come in contact with an infected person. As a result, Franz said whoever gets the test results first — the university or the health department — will initiate the contact tracing.

All the information between the health department and the university goes through Gentile.

There are also multiple students and employees in the Office of Students Outreach and Support who help with follow-up phone calls to people who file an online report through the university's system. The Human Resources department also handles questions from faculty and staff.

Students who have tested positive for the coronavirus, experience symptoms or have been in contact with someone who has tested positive or has symptoms are asked not to return to classes and stay isolated whether they live, on or off-campus.

Similarly, White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx on Sunday advised college students not to return home if they test positive for COVID-19.

“Please isolate at your college,” Birx said at a news conference. “Do not return home if you’re positive and spread the virus to your family, your aunts, your uncles, your grandparents.”

Students who need to quarantine must notify the Office of Student Outreach & Support, and the office will contact them with further instructions.

If an employee tests positive, they are asked to contact their department supervisor who will notify the YSU Office of Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety, which will then provide the employee with additional instructions.

Gentile said the university will initiate the contact tracing process by contacting students to determine where they were tested if they have symptoms and where they live. The students' class schedules will also be pulled to see if they have gone to locations on campus.

Before entering a classroom, meeting room or lab, students scan a QR code posted on the door through the YSU app. The data can be used to track the locations of students who stay in one building for at least 15 minutes, which helps with contact tracing.

The university notifies professors when a student in their in-person classes tests positive. Assigned seating charts identify those sitting next to that student, so they can also be notified of their exposure.

There are protocols for cleaning classrooms and other campus locations if a student or faculty member tests positive for coronavirus. Gentile said YSU has purchased about 20 electrostatic fog sprayers and disinfecting solutions and trained staff in different departments and facilities throughout campus to use them.

‘IT’S ON STUDENTS’

Cameron Brown, a freshman at YSU, said as soon as students walk into class, they are supposed to wipe down their desk and use hand sanitizer. Students are supposed to do a temperature check every time they enter a building.

While Paige Deems, a junior at YSU, thinks the university has done the best it could with COVID-19 safety procedures, she said there is no one to enforce the different protocols. When it comes to students cleaning desks before and after class, a lot of people just leave class and forget to do it, Deems said.

“I just feel it's on students to remember,” Deems said. “I feel like that puts a lot on professors to have to teach class and then make people clean stuff.”

Deems said she has not heard of students hosting or going to large gatherings since the weekend before classes began when a large gathering at University Edge apartments gained attention on social media. Since then, she heard officials are doing more monitoring of apartment complexes to prevent large gatherings from happening.

Deems said it would be good for students to know if cases have been reported to the university or among students going to classes.

“If you don’t hear about if there are any cases or anything, it makes people more willing to go out and do the partying and things that could potentially hurt other people and themselves,” Deems said.

Emily Morris, a freshman at YSU, said the university has been doing everything they can to prevent campus from closing.

“They’re actually doing a pretty good job,” Morris said.

Morris has not heard of any cases, but she also knows not many students are coming to campus for their classes.

“The only way I would be concerned if we shut down is if there was a spike in cases or if DeWine makes an order,” Morris said.



Ellen Wagner

About the Author: Ellen Wagner

Ellen Wagner reports on municipal services and budget cuts in Youngstown. She is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.
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