UGA health faculty on COVID-19 policies and testing: Campus is in ‘grave danger'

They are calling for increased testing and transparency to protect students and staff

Four leading health policy and public health faculty at the University of Georgia are alarmed at what they consider a flawed and dangerous process for surveillance and management of COVID-19 at UGA.

In this guest column, they explain why they believe the situation in Athens is dangerous, and the university administration is being secretive and irresponsible. They also say parents need to be aware of the inadequacy of UGA’s COVID-19 testing regime. (You can see their full titles at the end of the piece.)

By Amanda Abraham, Grace Bagwell Adams, W. David Bradford, and Zhuo “Adam” Chen

We call on UGA administration to be the leaders that a great university with 235 years of proud history behind it deserves. We write as experts in health data analysis and public health policy to express our dismay at the inadequate plan for managing face-to-face education at the University of Georgia in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are in grave danger that is made doubly acute because we are operating blindly. Rather than testing more than 6,000 students, faculty, and staff per day as is needed to manage a COVID outbreak, rather than provide testing data daily so we can actively surveille and anticipate the need to pivot, rather than operating our own contact tracing program to manage outbreaks, our leaders have adopted a regime of secrecy that serves to bury our collective heads in the sand.

Everyone in the state (including us) wants UGA to reopen. But, paramount above all else is the imperative to reopen in a safe and responsible manner; lives, literally, depend on it. We regretfully conclude that UGA’s plan for testing, tracing, and data-sharing fails miserably in terms of adequacy for surveillance or management, action, and transparency.

Dr. John Drake has recently modeled the disease spread for a large university and concluded that we would need over 6,000 tests per day even with social distancing and mandatory mask wearing to manage the spread of COVID. UGA’s plan to test, at most, 300 non-randomized people per day is inadequate even for surveillance. It is certainly far too low to have sufficient data to identify clusters and isolate infected individuals.

Faculty at UGA – world-class scholars with international expertise in epidemiology and public health – have repeatedly warned that our testing must be increased by factors of 10 or more. We continue to be ignored. Claims that more or mandatory testing is impossible are belied by the evidence. Northeastern University and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have been able to test tens of thousands of people per day. The FDA has issued emergency approval of new saliva testing protocols that are quick, inexpensive, and require no costly reagents.

Equally dangerous is the UGA administration’s failure to release testing data on a daily basis. UGA disingenuously claims that it cannot release daily information on the number of tests conducted and number of positive test results because of legal constraints – despite the fact that Georgia Tech and four other sister universities in Georgia are doing so. UGA has asserted in private communication that daily data cannot be released because the faculty cannot be trusted to understand the data. Those of us with decades of experience analyzing such data beg to differ. Without daily public data from both UGA testing sites, we are flying blind as a faculty and local community and we cannot make plans, but must merely trust that UGA is choosing the correct action. Sadly, given the UGA administration failures thus far, we should follow Ronald Reagan’s dictum: “Trust, but verify.”

Specific metrics that should be published daily include:

--Counts of total tests conducted, new positive cases, and the case positive rate

-- Counts of individuals in quarantine, self-isolation, and who are hospitalized

--On-campus quarantine capacity available

Finally, UGA administration has chosen to ignore its responsibility to conduct robust contact tracing, and insists this critical pillar of safe operation is handled b our regional Department of Public Health. DPH is overwhelmed and already did not have enough contact tracers, even before students returned to campus. This results in a significant time lag, basically rendering contact tracing of little to no effect.

Other institutions have pivoted to virtual education after a few days of in-person instruction. But, at least they knew when the wave was upon them. The weak testing, lack of randomization, and lack of transparency at UGA means we may not see the wave until we’re inundated and local health capacity is overwhelmed.

We live in a community at risk; we have staff who are vulnerable and we have students whose parents trust us to do the right thing. We urgently need rapid deployment of at least 6,000 saliva-based COVID tests per day (administered where the students and staff are), robust contact tracing, and daily data on numbers of tests conducted and of positive cases detected. Test! Be transparent! Be collaborative! And, be willing to pivot before it’s too late and not after.

Amanda Abraham, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Department of Public Administration and Policy

Grace Bagwell Adams, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Department of Health Policy and Management

W. David Bradford, Ph.D.

George D. Busbee Chair in Public Policy and Professor, Department of Public Administration and Policy

Zhuo “Adam” Chen, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Department of Health Policy and Management