The COVID-19 dashboard Ohio University launched Thursday to track cases among students and staff across all its campuses features datasets that likely don’t capture a complete count of all possible virus cases at the institution.
OU is primarily recording positive cases that students and staff voluntarily report through a COVID-19 hotline that’s operated by OhioHealth through its partnership with the university.
Although OhioHealth and several other providers in the area, including CVS Pharmacy and Holzer Health Systems, test large swaths of people on a routine basis, COVID-19 test results are protected by medical privacy laws. Providers are prohibited from giving patient information to the university.
Students and staff must call the hotline for their case to appear in one of the university’s datasets.
Those who don’t contact the hotline won’t be counted in the university’s data unless they otherwise voluntarily complete a university COVID-19 incident report form. These responses are reported by the university in a completely separate dataset.
Incident report forms may be submitted anonymously and can contain information about suspected COVID-19 cases. To verify each report, the university attempts to make contact with the individuals named and ask them to provide official documentation, Dr. Gillian Ice, special assistant to OU President Duane Nellis for public health operations, said in a statement.
It’s unclear how exactly the university is compelling both students and staff to either complete the form or contact the hotline.
Cases found through incident reports may have overlap with positive cases found through the hotline, creating confusion about which dataset provides a more accurate count of cases at the university.
“What we’re trying to do with the dashboard is be entirely transparent and share with media and parents and students and other members of our community exactly what data we have,” said Robin Oliver, a university spokesperson.
The dashboard, which others school across the state have created versions of to report cases, also contains information about the numbers of students occupying residence halls and the numbers of students expected to move into dorms within the week.
Winfried Just, an OU professor who studies the transmission of infectious diseases, said the data OU published is both confusing and not a true representation of cases at the university. The data does, however, allow decision makers and experts to analyze general trends in the numbers of cases detected, he said.
Just, who praised OU’s transparency in acknowledging they only have a limited dataset, said the university is making the best of the few testing resources it has.
A severe lack of centralized COVID-19 testing has been a near constant concern for months among public health officials and epidemiologists across the globe. Just argued OU’s situation is no different: there aren’t many easily accessible testing options in the region, thus the university has few ways to accurately capture the true numbers of positive cases.
“What else can they do?” he asked.
OU has not required students to be tested for COVID-19 before arriving on campus, and the university isn’t conducting its own testing like other schools in the state. Though, all students are expected to observe a 14-day quarantine at their home before traveling to campus.
Once they arrive, all students are required to follow the university’s public health expectations. It remains unclear exactly how the university is working to enforce its health policies.
The Ohio State University, which has allowed its entire student body to return to campus, requires students living in university-operated housing to complete a saliva COVID-19 test each week. It also routinely tests random samples of students in attempt to find asymptomatic cases. Ohio State students additionally have the option of being voluntarily tested.
An in-house testing apparatus at OU would require a Clinical Laboratory Improvements Amendments-approved laboratory that’s certified by The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which the university does not have, Ice said in a statement.
She said the university is finalizing plans with another vendor to begin asymptomatic testing before the end of September.
Just and a colleague were tasked in August by Ice with modeling how many virus cases are likely to arise once students returned to campus.
As of Friday morning, he said the model they created has generally been accurate in predicting the numbers of reported student cases in Athens. Once phase 2 arrives and more than 7,000 students return to campus, Just believes the numbers of reported cases among students should stay below the point where quarantine space and testing could become even more scarce.
“[Phase 2] may just work. We’re taking a risk, I mean, there is no doubt about it,” he said.
The worst case scenario, Just said, would involve Athens County becoming designated by the state as a purple “level 4” county, the most severe public health advisory within its COVID-19 alert system, with students being sent home a few weeks before the already-adjusted end date for on-campus activities.
For a period in July when virus cases surged, Athens was the only county in the state nearing a “level 4” designation. To date, no counties in the sate have turned purple.As of Tuesday, virus cases in Athens County are, on average, soaring to heights not seen since the July surge. And there is a clear correlation between the rise in cases and the start of phase 1.
According to the university’s dashboard as of Friday, 162 Athens campus students have reported to the hotline they’ve received tests; while 53 have reported positive test results and 38 have pending tests. Twelve Athens campus staff members have reported to the hotline that they’ve been tested, but none have come back positive and one remains pending.
Since Aug. 24, one staffer, one faculty member and 31 students at the Athens campus have reported positive test results through indecent reports.
“This data may not be a comprehensive reflection of all positive cases within our Ohio University community,” OU Spokesperson Jim Sabin said in a statement about the university’s dashboard.
Editor’s Note: This story has since been updated to include additional details provided to The NEWS by Dr. Ice about how the university verifies incident reports and why OU doesn’t conduct in-house testing.