Mandatory testing shows positivity rates in specific student demographics

A majority of the University of Rhode Island’s COVID-19 cases after baseline testing have been found to stem from the off-campus population, according President David Dooley.

Since the implementation of baseline testing at the University on Oct. 4, 7,477 students or 47 percent of the student population has been tested, according to Vice President for Student Affairs Kathy Collins. The total positivity rate is 2.4 percent, with the on-campus population positivity rate at 0.79 percent and the off-campus population positivity rate is 2.59 percent. The positivity rate within Greek Life is trending down as of Oct. 13, with a 7.89 percent test-positive rate in Greek Life housing and 7.53 percent test-positive rate among off-campus Greeks.

Approximately 1,600 tests have been administered per day and testing should be complete within ten days of its implementation, according to Dooley. Dooley also said that URI is considering placing on-campus residents under curfew depending on the results of mandatory coronavirus testing of the student population.

Spread among the off-campus population has been asymptomatic, tied to small gatherings between households and carpooling, according to Medical Director of Health Services Dr. Chistopher Nasin. Nasin said that spread also comes through communal living in dorms or Greek life-affiliated houses. 

“We do know we have had occasions where somebody goes to one house then goes to another and then takes a ride with friends and then comes back to their residence on campus and then all of a sudden we have an entire group of students who need to be traced and placed in isolation or quarantine,” Dooley said. “And that’s what we’ve been seeing for the past couple of weeks.”

On Oct. 9, the University issued a 14-day “shelter-in-place” order to those in Greek Life, as the positivity rate within Greek Life was 11.17 percent. The statement also asked for the “campus leaders” within Greek Life to help fight the spread of COVID-19.

Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force Dr. Deborah Birx emphasized the importance of student-leaders at URI after meeting with University and local Rhode Island leadership on Oct. 8.

“[They] have been really critical peer-to-peer leaders; and that’s how messages are often best conveyed,” Birx said.

The mandatory baseline testing that identified these differing proportions between off-campus and on-campus students’ positivity rate was mandated by the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH), according to Medical Director of Health Services at URI Dr. Christopher Nasin. This baseline testing is fundamental to successful control of the coronavirus, as shown at colleges such as Clemson University, that were able to control their outbreaks.

Although some students may be frustrated with the implementation of mandatory testing at this time, Nasin said the situation is one where the University is constantly learning and adapting to fit best practices with the RIDOH.

“This is not a static situation, it’s a very dynamic situation and it’s a very novel situation; we’ve never really been through this before,” said Nasin. “So, right now the data suggest that the mandatory testing is probably the most effective strategy for containing any outbreaks.”

Universities in Rhode Island hold 70,000 students total, which can have a huge influence on the public health of the smallest state in the country. Nationally, Nasin said rates of COVID-19 positivity in college-aged students are high due to socialization. This demographic also tends to be less symptomatic, 40 to 60 percent, than older individuals who contract the virus, though it can still prove deadly.

For this reason, Nasin reminded students to practice physical distancing, wear their masks and wash their hands. 

Birx commended the performance of students on campus in their efforts to perform these best practices and keep their positivity rates down.

“I’ve been really inspired by their ability to follow through, and what I’d like our message to be is learning from the student behavior on campus and taking that off campus into their housing and into our homes to really ensure we do the same thing,” she said.