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College students can return if tested for coronavirus every two days, study says

The University System of Maryland says that students and staff arriving on the campuses of the state's public colleges must be tested in advance for the coronavirus. In this March 10, 2020, photo, Towson University students move out of a dormitory after classes were cancelled because of COVID-19.

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By JUSTIN WM. MOYER | The Washington Post | Published: July 31, 2020

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Covid-19 infections can be controlled at universities this fall if students are tested for the coronavirus every two days, according to a study published Friday.

The study, by researchers from the Yale School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Open Network, used computer simulations to show how the virus might spread among a hypothetical cohort of 5,000 students.

In the simulations, 4,990 students were assumed to be coronavirus-free, while 10 were assumed to be infected. Researchers found screening every two days using a rapid, inexpensive test — even one that was not always accurate — would "maintain a controllable number of covid-19 infections" if coupled with "strict behavioral interventions" like quarantining positive students in isolation dormitories.

The study estimated screening costs would be $470 per student per semester, and did not consider the effects of reopening schools on staff and communities where colleges are located. It also said monitoring students for symptoms was not sufficient, and logistical challenges like the availability of tests or isolation dormitories "may be beyond the reach of many university administrators and the students in their care."

However, with sufficient resources, universities could reopen within weeks, according to the study.

"We believe there is a safe way for students to return to college in fall 2020," the study said.

A. David Paltiel, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health and the study's lead author, said the study was undertaken as a consortium of university presidents in the Boston area looked for a way to safely reopen.

Paltiel said the frequency of testing is more important than its accuracy. Repeated tests would eventually find the positive cases, he said.

While there are risks in any plan to reopen campuses in a pandemic, according to Paltiel, there are also risks to letting students stay home.

"The problem doesn't go away simply because you don't reopen campus," he said. "We can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

The study comes as many universities, including some in the Washington region, announced plans to move online for the fall semester. Georgetown University and George Washington University, for example, will remain remote for the rest of the year. Other schools, including Yale and Harvard, will welcome some students back to campus. Yale will require undergraduates living in dorms to be tested twice weekly; Harvard will encourage weekly tests.

Still other schools, like those in the University of Maryland system, will require students to test negatively for coronavirus before enrolling.

Michael Mina, an epidemiology professor at Harvard who was not involved in the study, said high-volume testing by universities is "a little bit niche," but may be the key to safely reopening for the fall semester.

While the public, many drug companies and the Food and Drug Administration are focused on tests' accuracy, Mina said, battling the coronavirus successfully may simply demand testing more often, even if tests aren't always reliable.

The problem is not all schools — let alone the general public — have private labs or relationships with the pharmaceutical industry that give them access to a large number of tests. Simple at-home tests that provide rapid results are necessary everywhere, Mina said.

"This is a very powerful approach to get society running again," he said. "It's a way we should all be thinking."