New York Times Tracking COVID-19 Cases on College Campuses

The following message by Marla J. Gold, MD, director of the Return Oversight Committee, about The New York Times tracking COVID-19 cases on college campuses, was sent to the Drexel community: 

Dear Students and Colleagues, 

As you may be aware, The New York Times has been compiling data on COVID-19 cases on college campuses throughout the pandemic by collecting data from public campus COVID dashboards where available. It recently updated the data for the first time this year, in a report that suggests Drexel has experienced a 191% increase in COVID-19 cases from 2020 to 2021. The presentation of this data is misleading for several reasons and I believe it is important for you to understand that our campus community is doing a very good job at protecting each other, preventing COVID-19 transmission and keeping case counts low.

First, there are many differences in the way schools report data, as well as significant differences in how they are operating at any point in time. Some have been fully remote for most academic activities, while others have been carrying out testing operations for various populations over different periods of time. Some publish their data, while others provided it. As The New York Times noted in the piece, many colleges and universities did not report at all. 

In other words, no standard methodology was used for this published data set, leading to marked inconsistencies as well as incorrect comparisons and assumptions. Because of this, it is problematic to attempt to use this data as a way of comparing or judging the relative success of schools’ responses to the pandemic. 

Second, presenting this data without the context of testing procedure changes on campus can also lead to misinterpretation. As you are aware, Drexel pivoted to a remote learning model last spring out of an abundance of caution at a time when campus outbreaks were nationally prevalent. In 2020, COVID-19 tests were available for asymptomatic students who wanted such testing beginning in October, as well as for symptomatic students who sought care through the Student Health Center. Drexel began publishing a cumulative case count in October 2020 and the Times used that number to represent all of 2020. 

Since welcoming a small number of students back to campus this term, we have been regularly testing members of our campus community as part of a mandatory screening program. Notably, we have tested 310% more people so far this year compared with tests done in October-December 2020. Our program also includes robust case investigation and contact tracing. Thus, our regular surveillance testing will naturally result in detecting more cases than were reported in the three months of 2020, when testing was limited to symptomatic individuals, those who had been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and a small number of students who opted for screening tests. 

Finally, it is important to understand that we are actually doing quite well at keeping each other safe and preventing transmission of the virus. The most widely accepted data point to follow is the weekly positivity percentage of those tested — with the aim of staying below 5%. Overall, positivity at Drexel in the three months of 2020 was 1.896% compared to 1.31% thus far in 2021. This is low in general and even more notable because it occurred while the positivity rate in Philadelphia was as high as 13%. 

We use weekly data, presented on Drexel’s COVID-19 Dashboard, as well as more case-specific information to guide our decisions and our strategy is designed to prevent cases, support wellness and identify those infected and their contacts to ensure appropriate isolation and quarantine. I commend the work of the Return Oversight Committee, and the many faculty, professional staff and students who have worked tirelessly to keep our campus community safe and healthy as we look to the day when we can all be together again. 

Marla J Gold, MD, FACP 
Director, Return to Campus Operations