Measures like daily health checks and remote classes could be the new norm for years, according to Arizona State University President Michael Crow.
"We don't see an environment where the disease isn't something we're trying to manage," Crow said in a Zoom call with reporters today.
Crow said even if a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, the measures offer a chance to address other infectious health issues such as the flu. He and other top admins on the call defended the university's approach to resuming classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The area around ASU's Tempe campus led the state in newly confirmed cases of the virus last week; last Thursday the university announced a peak of 957 "active" cases involving students, faculty, and staff associated with the university, with half of those people living off campus. That number dropped to 825 "active" cases on Sunday, 573 of which were off-campus.
Crow said they were off to a "good start," while acknowledging there had been more spread in the on-campus residence halls after students returned than had been hoped for. He said administration had expected that 1 percent to 2 percent of the university population would test positive and the goal was to maintain the university's functions for years to come while managing the spread of COVID-19.
The university has taken heat for using the percent of students with cases as a metric instead of releasing what percent of students actually getting tested are getting positive results, a key metric used by the state. Crow said they would not release information about what percent of tests are coming back positive until a statistically significant sampling of people associated with ASU had been completed.
Administrators attributed the university's high numbers to pursuing an aggressive testing strategy while testing across the rest of the state has dropped, and noted that the number of "active" cases associated with ASU was dropping.
"A sizable fraction of tests being done in Arizona are being done at ASU," said Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the university's Biodesign Institute.
Joanne Vogel, ASU's vice president of Student Services, said that most of the cases among students had been minor and easily managed, and that no students have been hospitalized with the virus since late spring.
"Since about midsummer, we've only seen mild or asymptomatic cases for students," she said.
Student employees working in the dorms last month questioned why students were not spread out more through the available spaces. As cases peaked last week, the university announced it would begin doing so. In response to a question from Phoenix New Times, Vogel defended the spacing of students in dorms, saying that the university had consulted with county officials beforehand, and methods now are intended to more easily facilitate isolation, as opposed to preventing students from interacting.
ASU has been criticized for not releasing cumulative totals of positive tests like other state universities in Arizona, instead only sharing the number of people believed to be currently dealing with the disease. Crow defended this approach but said the university would begin releasing cumulative numbers today.
Neal Woodbury, interim executive vice president and chief science and technology officer for ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise, said ASU's goal for statistically significant sampling is a more scientific approach to assessing the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community by measuring many people, not just those who self-select to get tested.
It's easy to see why the university would prefer this accounting. Between August 27 and September 2 over 7,000 students were tested, for a raw positivity rate of around 9 percent, while the rate among randomly selected students was closer to 3 percent, Woodbury said. Countywide, the positivity rate of people tested for the week ending August 30 was 4 percent.
"The answer is they don't have another way of doing it," Woodbury said of the state and county's use of the benchmark without randomized testing.
Notably, the numbers from the random testing will not include students who already have tested positive for COVID-19. LaBaer said this is due to concerns about returning false positives from previously infected students. However, he added, a large number of the cases among students at ASU are asymptomatic and would still be caught by the randomized testing. New Times has asked for more specifics on how, or if, the random testing would incorporate "active" cases and will provide updates when we receive them.
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