Over the last few weeks, thousands of students have returned to university campuses that now look and feel very different from the ones they left just a few short months ago. Reduced capacity, plastic dividers, hand sanitizer stations, masked student greeters and many other changes will make up the new campus landscapes.
After speaking with Dr. Thomas Unnasch, co-director of the Center for Global Health Infectious Disease Research at the University of South Florida, I believe the reality is that there are three critical factors so that our schools can successfully reopen:
1. Require Masks
It’s simple, effective and a small thing to ask. According to a June study from researchers in Texas and California, masks reduce the spread of Covid-19 as an airborne virus. Masks work to reduce the spray of coughing, sneezing, breathing — and limit the radius that the droplets not caught by the mask can travel.
2. Rapid Testing
Time is of the essence — the faster we can tell someone they’ve tested positive for Covid-19, the faster we can start contact tracing and reduce the spread. According to the New York Times, wait times in some states are up to 48 hours or longer.
For a university environment, it is particularly important to deliver test results in almost real time. Why? The virus spreads quickly, and college students, by virtue of the campus environment, come into contact with many people every day. This creates ideal conditions for an explosive spread of the virus. The faster a positive case can be identified, the fewer people that positive case will infect.
3. Contact Tracing Technology
Contact tracing in the old-fashioned way (i.e., interviews and manual intercepts) might work for gonorrhea but won’t work for Covid-19. Why? Scale. Covid-19 is a very infectious disease that spreads through the air and surfaces. The average student doesn’t know who sits behind them in Biology 101, much less who was in the cafeteria with them or in the elevator on the ride up to their dorm. Manual contact tracing is only as effective as the information that people can provide. And in dense environments like schools, universities, office buildings and arenas, it means the infection can spread in a wide and unwitting way.
The second reason? Stigma and shame. Many are unwilling to communicate with contact tracers because they don’t know who they are, they are suspicious as to intent, or they are embarrassed to share that they didn’t abide by social distancing guidelines or they attended a crowded event. The long and short of it is simple: Manual contact tracing interviews alone won’t cut it on our university campuses.
This is where automated contact tracing solutions can help out. Automated contact tracing tools can pinpoint if someone comes into contact with an infected person much more quickly and comprehensively than can be achieved by traditional manual contract tracing. These automated contact tracing methods can provide the ability to notify exposed people within minutes following a positive test result.
Researchers at the University of Alabama have created their own symptom checker app to encourage individuals to self-report and be aware of symptoms as a means of generating compliance and reducing the spread of the virus.
Unfortunately, privacy concerns remain a roadblock to widespread adoption, and colleges need to be mindful of their students’ privacy. According to Education Dive, “University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign recently reviewed 50 coronavirus-related apps, about a third of which were devoted to contact tracing. Only 16 of all the apps studied indicated user data would be encrypted and made anonymous.”
Conversely, commonplace technologies that have become even more critical in the pandemic can solve these problems, in particular Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi-based tracking technologies, like the kind we use in the contact-tracing tool my company created, can provide results similar to those obtained from the tracking apps, without requiring a download. The University of California, Irvine, also employs the use of Wi-Fi with the contact-tracing app it created. “To avoid overcounting people, it uses machine learning techniques to determine if two or more devices are moving together, suggesting they belong to the same person,” according to Education Dive.
Masks, expedited testing and new technology can all play a critical part in helping our colleges reopen in a safe and effective manner.
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