OPINION: We don’t know extent of pandemic on some Georgia campuses

University of Georgia students wear face masks as they make their way near the Arch on Wednesday, September 23, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
University of Georgia students wear face masks as they make their way near the Arch on Wednesday, September 23, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

University of North Georgia professor says: ‘And it is partly because we don’t want to know.’

In a guest column today, Matthew Boedy, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia, shares the COVID-19 data he’s gathered from University System of Georgia campuses, using Georgia’s open records law to get a cumulative total.

His conclusion: Inconsistent and inadequate testing could mean the spike in cases that occurred when colleges opened in August could recur in January.

Boedy is conference president of the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a national organization that represents the interests of college and university faculty members.

By Matthew Boedy

We are nearing the midpoint in the semester for many of our public universities and colleges. Time for students to decide if they want to get out or stay in.

It is also a good time to look at the pandemic on campus.

I have been trying to tally the number of cases on campus since the semester started.

Some schools like Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia have extensive dashboards with good information beyond the daily (or, in the case of UGA, weekly) count of cases. Some schools like my own, University of North Georgia, have daily counts but little about locations of infected person like Tech does.

Other schools have offered little information and what little we get is different depending on the school.

I have had to use Georgia’s open records act to get a cumulative total from some schools because they are only publishing “current” or active cases, that is, minus those who have “recovered” enough to return to school or work.

And Georgia Gwinnett College – which reports a running total of cases since March – wanted to charge me for the total since August.

Some schools rebuffed my request for information beyond daily counts - like test counts or dorm infections, for example - by saying they had no “responsive documents” or it would cost money.

Oddly, too as of Oct. 7, Georgia State University has missed two weekly reports showing how many positive cases are in its dorms. (It seems after this post appeared, Georgia State updated its COVID-19 information page with a new weekly report.)

Dr. Matthew Boedy
Dr. Matthew Boedy

The state University System central office told schools it was up to them to decide what kind of information to release and so we have a hodgepodge.

One would think a system that set policies for all 26 schools to follow would be interested in a consistent and transparent approach to educating the community about a pandemic.

But these are the same people who had to be publicly shamed into mandating masks.

My conservative estimate shows about 8,300 infections in students and employees across a system of 330,000 students and thousands of faculty and staff.

This may not seem like a big number if you remember the early semester spikes at Georgia College, Georgia Southern, and UGA. [Tech also had outbreaks in on-campus housing.]

Reported cases there and other places have decreased significantly since those early semester reports.

One expert at Georgia College and its president argue this is because after initial off-campus parties, the message of safety is getting through, and, in the case of Georgia College, “an outbreak occurred, but those infections mostly ran their courses and petered out within 14 days.”

I am not an infectious disease expert but I have seen enough of Dr. Anthony Fauci on CNN to know that testing is the key to understanding the spread of COVID-19. Georgia College just started a small effort at surveillance testing, which would include testing of asymptomatic people.

And that group is key to the pandemic because that group spreads it more.

An interesting bit of data from the UGA dashboard tells me that the “success” cheerleaders at Georgia College ignore broader data to grant a win for the daily count.

UGA has begun to report on the asymptomatic rate of students who are found to be positive through surveillance testing. The positive rate of such testing has definitely slowed from 9% at the height of the spike in late August to 1.17% at the most recent report.

But the asymptomatic rate of positive students who responded to a UGA survey was 41% this week, more than 14% higher than the previous week, which was about double the week before that.

Yes, a small sample: 45 out of 170 student positives responded to the survey and so less than 20 students were asymptomatic.

For context on testing, UGA tested 1365 people this past week, a drop of more than 120 compared to previous week, and about a drop of 600 from its peak.

For comparison purposes, Georgia Tech, which has had about a quarter of the cases UGA has had, tests 1500-1800 a day, some days doing as much as 2,000.

My tally has Tech with 821 cases and UGA leading all public schools by far with 3373 since their respective semesters started.

What this tells me about small schools with no or little testing such as UNG or Georgia College is we simply don’t know the extent of the pandemic on campus. And it is partly because we don’t want to know.

Testing, testing, testing.

And yet few are being done across the state.

So far then this semester has taught us two important lessons: 1) daily case counts or even rolling two-week counts that slow are good but not the full context needed and 2) masks, social distancing, and other mitigations work to some degree but asymptomatic people are the key to managing this pandemic.

Based on what we have seen so far, one can reasonably predict that what we saw in August will happen again in January.

Students and faculty won’t be forced to test before coming back. Spikes will occur. Dorms and other on-campus housing will be petri dishes. And of course, many will walk around not knowing they are infected.

Education is supposed to help us understand how to live better.

If January turns into August, this semester will have been a waste of time, money, and of course, lives.

This didn’t have to happen.

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