Good, but Not Great: Taking Stock of a Big Ten University’s Covid Plan

The University of Illinois says an aggressive testing program prevented deaths on and off campus during the last academic year. Now the university is contending with the Delta variant.,

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This week is the start of a new academic year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

After a year and a half disrupted by a pandemic, most classes will be in classrooms again, with students and professors breathing the same air. And most people will be vaccinated.

The campus last week “was just really just really thriving with excitement,” said Robert J. Jones, the university’s chancellor. “Particularly among the students that did the whole year remote last year.”

During that year, the university implemented an ambitious experiment in virus surveillance. It included testing, two to three times a week, of tens of thousands of students, faculty members and staff members — everyone who came to campus — in the hopes of keeping the coronavirus in check. It served as a model for other educational institutions, and some carried out similar programs.

“We still know of no hospitalizations or deaths caused by spread on our campus,” said Martin D. Burke, a chemistry professor who led the university’s testing strategy.

This month, ahead of this year’s return to campus, a paper by Illinois researchers is calling the Covid testing program a major success not just for the university but also the surrounding community, lowering the number of deaths from the disease.

But university officials acknowledge that there were missteps and that lessons were learned. They are also grappling with the uncertainty arising from the Delta variant and how much testing and other measures will be needed.

“Our hope, and our desire, is that we can end this semester, and this academic year, the way that we started, by bringing everybody back to campus with some minimal restrictions,” Dr. Jones said. “I’m very optimistic about this academic year.”

Back on Campus

Like many colleges, the University of Illinois shut down its campus in the spring of 2020. Officials soon started exploring whether they could bring back students in the fall.

Scientists at the university developed a quick, reliable test that used saliva instead of uncomfortable nose swabs and set up a laboratory to churn out thousands of results a day.

Other researchers developed a detailed computer model that indicated that twice-a-week testing of the entire university community would detect cases before the virus had spread to others.

About 25,000 undergraduate students returned to campus in the fall last year. And the plan went awry almost immediately

Some students, as expected, carried the coronavirus to Champaign and Urbana, the bordering towns that are home to the campus. University officials thought that the first round of tests would identify those cases, those students would isolate themselves and infections would dwindle within a couple of weeks.

Instead, the numbers surged.

The computer models had assumed that students who tested positive would isolate themselves in their dorms or their off-campus housing. The researchers had not taken into account that a few infected undergraduates would continue partying, creating superspreader events.

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Collecting a saliva sample for coronavirus testing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in July.Credit…Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune, via TNS, via Alamy Live News

The campus was locked down, and all students were told to stay in their rooms except for essential activities, which included attending class. That ended the surge, but university administrators were mocked for not having taken into account that some students would not do what they were told.

After that, the rate of Covid cases rose and fell but remained largely under control.

There were more than 4,300 cases at the university in the fall semester, about three-quarters of them among undergraduates. The comprehensive testing identified many who were asymptomatic and could have spread the virus to others. The testing also revealed hot spots, and certain students were asked to undergo testing three times a week.

The students went home for Thanksgiving, as had been planned, and the last part of the fall semester was taught remotely.

The results were good enough that university officials decided to bring students back in January.

At the beginning of the spring semester, the return of students was spread over two weeks to limit infection. And spring break was canceled and replaced by three Wednesdays off during the semester to discourage travel away from campus.

The number of coronavirus infections again bumped upward as students arrived.

During the spring semester, there were close to 2,000 coronavirus cases, about half as many as during the fall.

Daniel J. Simons, a psychology professor who has been a critic of how his university handled the pandemic, is still not sure that the risks were worth it. “That’s a judgment call of whether it was appropriate to open or not,” he said.

Over the course of the academic year, more than 5,000 undergraduates contracted Covid-19. Yet none died, or even became dangerously ill from Covid, university officials say.

“We were able to keep those numbers very much under control,” Dr. Burke said. “It’s not just the total numbers that creep up over the course of a whole year. It’s avoiding those exponential outbreaks.”

Even some critics, like Dr. Simons, agreed.

“It could have been absolute disaster,” he said. “And it turned out not to have been.”

Carl T. Bergstrom, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Washington who had praised Illinois’s plan last year, said of the final tally, “It’s good, but it’s not great.”

He added, “It underscores how difficult control is in that kind of environment.”

In some college towns, coronavirus outbreaks among students spilled over into the wider community. Not only did that not occur in Champaign and Urbana, university officials say, but an analysis by Dr. Burke and other scientists argues that the university’s efforts benefited people beyond campus. They reported the finding in a paper that has not yet been accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

The analysis calculated the number of deaths expected for counties that are home to universities in the Big Ten athletic conference between July 6 and Dec. 23 last year, largely based on federal data but making adjustments for the social and economic makeup of the communities. For 11 of those counties, the number of Covid deaths almost matched total deaths projected by the scientists’ analysis. (Data was not available for two Big Ten universities: the University of Nebraska and the University of Maryland.)

For the University of Illinois, the number of deaths in Champaign County was significantly lower than expected, the researchers said, by 14.6 percent.

The Big Ten universities all imposed similar requirements for social distancing and masks, so the researchers argue that the comprehensive testing program at Illinois “uniquely resulted in a protective effect for the communities in Champaign County.”

Alex Perkins, a professor of biological sciences at Notre Dame, praised the paper overall as “incredibly impressive” but said the mortality analysis was not “particularly convincing or conclusive.”

A detailed analysis, Dr. Perkins said, would need to take into account the history of how the pandemic had played out in each community as well as nearby areas. “While it is an intriguing result,” he said, “I think it would take quite a lot of additional analysis to see how well that conclusion holds up.”

The lessons that the University of Illinois learned have also served as a model for other institutions and communities. The university helped set up laboratories and testing programs at other universities, community colleges, public school districts, the Illinois General Assembly and private companies.

Dr. Burke said he was most excited about the program in the Baltimore City public schools, where high school students are being tested weekly, one of the few school systems in the country that will employ comprehensive testing.

“So I think it made a huge impact, not just here,” he said.

And Illinois wasn’t the only university that implemented frequent, comprehensive testing, although it was quite likely the largest with such a diverse student population. Still, Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y., and Northeastern in Boston tried a similar approach and fared even better, with lower infection rates than Illinois’s throughout the fall.

“In the end, we beat our optimistic model,” Martha E. Pollack, Cornell’s president, said earlier this year.

New Academic Year, New Challenges

For the fall, the university is requiring students, faculty members and staff members to be vaccinated. But the requirement offers a permissive loophole. It applies only to those “who are able to do so” with no requirement to explain why one might not be able to do so.

Dr. Jones expects that the vast majority have complied.

“We expect them to be north of 85 percent, definitely, may even be 90,” he said.

Those who do not provide proof of vaccination will undergo frequent testing again — every other day for undergraduates, twice a week for graduate students and faculty and staff members. Those who do not comply are locked out of university buildings.

Because of the Delta variant, masks are required indoors, even for the vaccinated.

Dr. Jones said university officials had also learned from last year’s missteps, particularly a failure to focus on human dynamics and behavior.

“You’ve got to always calculate that,” he said.

Cornell and Northeastern have imposed similar requirements and restrictions. Dr. Pollack of Cornell said 94 percent of people at Cornell, including 97 percent of students and 99 percent of faculty members, were fully vaccinated.

The Illinois campus is also planning for a resurgence of existing variants, or a more virulent one. The university has canceled reservations made at its on-campus hotel so that the rooms can be used to isolate and quarantine students if needed. The testing program can be ramped up again.

“We’re still taking some of the same precautions, just to be on the safe side,” Dr. Jones said. “If the data and if the science says something different, we will turn on a dime. Absolutely.”

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