US Covid-19 cases jump by a third as college students return to classes

The increases were greatest among campuses that drew students from areas of the US with high transmission. PHOTO: AFP

GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA (BLOOMBERG) - College campus re-openings in the US led to local increases in Covid-19 cases of more than a third, according to a study that highlights the importance of vaccination as fall classes approach.

The increases were greatest among campuses that drew students from areas of the US with high transmission, according to the study published on Monday (Aug 29) in the online journal PLOS One.

Re-openings led to about 11,000 additional cases per day during fall of 2020, according to the survey of almost 1,400 colleges. That translates to a 37 per cent jump in cases compared with the period before campuses reopened.

About 238 million Americans live in counties with college campuses, where the start of the fall semester is a time of intense social mixing that can contribute to the spread of diseases like Covid-19, influenza and monkeypox.

The study suggests that these dynamics affect not only campuses themselves, but the communities around them, said Martin Andersen, an associate professor of economics at University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

"The connectivity between college campuses and other areas matters a lot," said Andersen, who led the study.

Big, national schools that pull students from across the country have a greater impact on local Covid-19 rates than community colleges that enrol students from nearby cities and towns, he said.

The rate of vaccination remains low in college-age individuals, and the majority of college students did not engage in "high-quality" testing regimes in the 2020-21 academic year, according to the study.

While some American colleges and universities have established vaccination, testing and masking requirements, overall low Covid-19 immunisation rates and the emergence of new variants could raise the chance of community outbreak, the study said.

Among the obstacles to keeping Covid-19 rates low is a lack of clear accountability between schools and their surrounding communities, Andersen said. Colleges may hand the baton off to local public health officials, who also have limited resources to combat outbreaks, he said.

"At the end of the day, there's no one really in charge of mitigating or containing the situation," said Andersen. "And we're relying on colleges to do the best that they can."

More than 94 million Covid-19 cases were reported in the US as of Aug 29, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Campus re-openings were linked to an increased Covid-19 incidence of 4.9 cases per 100,000 population, or about 37 per cent higher than before the resumption of school.

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