The White House Coronavirus Task Force is recommending Missouri universities test all students before Thanksgiving break, but schools say that’s a costly plan and mass testing isn't effective.
According to the most recent report, Missouri is in a red zone for coronavirus cases, with the 15th highest rate of new cases in the U.S. last week.
About 80% of Missouri counties have “moderate or high levels of community transmission,” according to the Oct. 11, 2020 report obtained by KCUR through a records request. Jackson, St. Louis and Greene counties have the highest number of new cases over the last three weeks, the report says.
The task force urges schools to "work with university students to keep cases low, with the goal of low transmission in preparation for Thanksgiving." Vice president Mike Pence, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci and CDC director Robert Redfield are among the task force members.
"Implement antibody testing to understand the fraction of students who have been infected and plan for spring semester accordingly,” said the White House report delivered to state officials Tuesday. “Test all university students before dismissing them for Thanksgiving.”
The White House Coronavirus Task Force gives state officials weekly updates on state and county trends as well as guidance to reduce the coronavirus’ spread.
The University of Missouri, Lincoln University, Rockhurst University and Missouri State officials told KCUR they don’t currently have plans to do such mass testing for their students, citing logistics, cost and different ideas about how to test. University of Missouri-Kansas City is reviewing the guidance, according to a spokeswoman.
“It can really explode across the country”
Thanksgiving break presents a challenge for universities and health officials as students make the trek home, potentially traveling to areas with higher levels of community transmission. Because of this, some colleges have shortened their fall semester so students don’t come back after Thanksgiving.
“We know that a lot of cases may be spread when people come together and are … in close contact with others, especially in settings where you might not have a mask such as eating Thanksgiving dinner,” said Dr. Sarah Boyd, an infectious disease physician with Saint Luke’s health system.
Kansas City Health Department director Dr. Rex Archer also cited the “crowded environment” of a Thanksgiving dinner as a worry for coronavirus spread.
“This is a concern. We certainly have seen in some years with influenza, if it was circulating as COVID is right now, then after Thanksgiving, boy, it can really explode across the country,” Archer said.
Park University will switch to online learning for the last two weeks of the fall semester. In an email sent to students Oct. 9 announcing the change, the associate vice president and dean of students said this was “out of an abundance of caution,” noting that “Thanksgiving travel could increase the risk of COVID-19 spread on Park University campuses across the country.”
Park University doesn’t plan to test students before Thanksgiving break but that could change if the college “experiences a sharp increase in community spread or testing becomes available,” Park University President Greg Gunderson told KCUR in an email.
The university tested all students, faculty and staff at the start of the semester and plans to do so again at the beginning of the spring semester, Gunderson said.
Mass testing of students?
Christian Basi, a University of Missouri spokesman, said there are currently no plans to test all students before Thanksgiving break, which is in line with the university’s decision not to do mass testing when students returned to the campus in the fall.
Testing resources are focused on students experiencing coronavirus symptoms, Basi said. He said the school is managing the pandemic "extremely well," and out of 27,000 students on campus, there are 55 “active” student cases. About 1,700 students tested positive for the coronavirus but have since recovered, according to the university’s dashboard.
“We've been very, very pleased with how things are going,” Basi said. “We've been able to provide our students with in-person experiences. About 50% of our classes are completely in-person. Another 16 to 17% are hybrid,” which means a mix of in-person and online.
Basi said MU consults with local medical experts and reviews guidance from the American Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and additional sources like the White House Coronavirus Task Force reports.
“There is not a significant amount of evidence that says mass testing is effective,” Basi said.
CDC guidance updated earlier this month says that in colleges with “frequent movement of faculty, staff and students between the [institution of higher education] and the community, a strategy of entry screening combined with regular serial testing might prevent or reduce” coronavirus transmission.
However, the CDC stops short of recommending widespread testing. Instead, the CDC lists five different testing strategies and states there “is currently limited scientific evidence to guide decisions to use or not use one of these strategies.” Some experts criticized the CDC for not advocating for mass testing, according to Inside Higher Education.
Archer, the Kansas City Health Department director, said the White House Coronavirus Task Force recommendations to test all students would logistically be difficult. He’s not sure if the universities have the “capacity to try to pull that off."
“The recommendation looks good on paper, but the White House and administration haven't funded us to be able to implement the recommendation,” Archer said.
Testing capacity issues are the reason Lincoln University doesn’t plan to do mass testing.
“Testing the entire student population before break would not be feasible due to the number of available tests on campus, as well as a shortage of personnel to handle testing of that magnitude,” Lincoln University spokeswoman Misty Nunn said in an email.
A Rockhurst University spokeswoman said the availability and cost of tests for students who are asymptomatic made following the White House’s advice challenging.