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The University of Michigan added outside testing counts to its COVID-19 dashboard on Thursday, more than doubling the total number of positive cases at the University since the start of the fall semester.
The total positive case count since Aug. 30, the day before the start of the school year, was 257 as of Thursday evening. On Wednesday afternoon, before the University started including off-campus tests that weren’t self-reported, the dashboard reported 117 positive cases in the same time period.
The University posted an update on its Campus Blueprint website to explain the new data.
“University officials have seen a significant increase in positive cases this week with the majority of the increase the result of students being tested at off-campus facilities,” the update reads. “U-M launched its enhanced COVID-19 dashboard today to reflect new datasets, including outside testing from the county. This additional data caused a jump in cases.”
Most of these new cases are from students living in off-campus, congregate housing, according to the update. In an email to The Michigan Daily, University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen said “it’s up to the county health department to officially identify off-campus clusters.”
The University’s dashboard previously reported only outside testing data that had been self-reported to the University. The University is now reporting testing data connected to the University that are performed at off-campus testing sites, provided by the Washtenaw County Health Department.
Before Thursday’s update, most of the positive cases identified on the dashboard were through University testing channels, such as University Health Service for students and Occupational Health Services for faculty and staff. Now, positive cases identified through outside testing make up more than half of all positive cases identified in the last two weeks.
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, communications and health promotion administrator of Washtenaw County Health Department, told The Daily the change in the dashboard does not reflect a change in the relationship between the University and the WCHD. In other words, all the cases now reported on the dashboard, while adding to the confirmed number of University-specific cases, were previously known to both parties.
“Do I think that (the dashboard update) changes represent cases that were unknown to either the county or the University? No, I don’t,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. “Is it better reflecting the scope of cases that are connected to the University? Yes, probably.”
According to Ringler-Cerniglia, the Washtenaw County Health Department is made aware of all positive cases in the county, whether they are tested on campus or off campus. After case investigation and contact tracing, the department has a legal agreement to report to the University all cases that are confirmed to be connected to campus.
Ringler-Cerniglia also said the health department helps the University conduct its own contact tracing.
“When the students were just returning, the University didn’t have enough contact tracers and case investigators up and hired and ready to go,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. “So, we, as the health department, took over some of that initially, and then it shifted back. Now it sounds like there’s a little bit of an increase of cases that we’re helping out again.”
To determine if a positive case is linked to the University, the health department checks to see if the case is linked to an on-campus or near-campus address. Case investigators also flag tests conducted in the county that are linked to an out-of-state address, as Ringler-Cerniglia said those are likely students using their permanent address instead of their campus address.
Business freshman Nathan Lewis said he turned to an off-campus testing center to get a rapid test after he was exposed to the virus.
“(This urgent care) had a rapid test and I wanted a rapid test because I was exposed to the virus last week,” Lewis said. “I didn’t want to semi-quarantine in my dorm and I didn’t want to not know exactly if I had it or not.”
Lewis said he was not planning on reporting his negative result to the University.
“I’m not going to report my result because, to be honest, I don’t know where to report it,” Lewis said.
Ringler-Cerniglia said the health department is seeing an increase in students going to off-campus facilities for rapid testing. Because these tests are not to the same standard as the regular PCR tests, the health department reports rapid testing positive results as “probable cases.”
While a rapid positive test result is trustworthy, Ringler-Cerniglia said rapid tests have higher rates of false negatives. Though she understands that students may find same-day test results appealing, she’s worried students may put too much stock in a rapid negative test result.
“What’s happening with this influx of cases — lately, it looks like there’s a number of them that were tested using rapid antigen testing at some of the local urgent cares,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. “… Let’s say they’re using this to justify going to a gathering. So I go and get my rapid test, and I go to a party. We’d be highly concerned that that could be a false negative.”
The availability of rapid testing for athletes is a major reason the Big Ten decided to reinstate the football season this fall. Each school in the league plans on testing players every day starting on or before Sept. 30.
Ringler-Cerniglia said the county receives only the number of positive cases, not the number of tests that are completed in total. So, the county does not know what proportion of tests being conducted are rapid result testing.
For the same reason, Broekhuizen said the University’s dashboard only reports positivity rates for on-campus testing, which last week was at 1.3 percent.
“Since only positive test results are required to be reported to the county/state, we do not know the total number of off-campus tests administered,” Broekhuizen said. “Without that number, we are not able to calculate the positivity rate.”
Residence hall data was also updated Thursday. As of Sept. 19, the dashboard reports 64 total cases discovered in the residence halls, with 36 of these cases discovered in the preceding week. As of Friday morning, 25 cases have been confirmed in residence halls since Sept. 19.
All students who tested positive and all known contacts in residence halls have been moved to quarantine and isolation, the update said.
Last week, the University announced that 19 positive cases were discovered in South Quad, the first official cluster of COVID-19 in University residence halls. The University tested 221 South Quad students after discovering the cluster, and all results came back negative, according to the University.
The dashboard is now reporting 23 cases in South Quad. There have been no new confirmed clusters in any other residence halls.
The move to add outside testing to the dashboard comes after widespread criticism of the University’s testing protocols. Public health experts have questioned the University’s rationale for not conducting mandatory, widespread testing.
Graduate students cited the University’s testing procedures as one of the reasons for their strike earlier this month. Some students have expressed concern with the University’s contact tracing and surveillance testing.
Ringler-Cerniglia said there’s no “collusion” or other efforts to cover up test results. She said community concerns may stem from misconceptions about the purpose of the dashboard.
“I think it’s an accurate reflection of what is known and can be confirmed and can be published,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. “… The dashboard is not meant to be a rapid notification system. They’re based on data, and that data has to be verified and cleaned and presented. So there’s going to be a lag in putting that information up.”
At one point Thursday morning, the dashboard appeared to retroactively reduce the number of reported cases for previous weeks. Broekhuizen said this was the product of the University testing the update.
“The updated dashboard was briefly made live during some testing,” Broekhuizen said. “At that time, it did not have the separation of the on-campus and off-campus testing that is now a part of the updated dashboard.”
The University’s quarantine and isolation housing is at 13.3 percent capacity as of Thursday evening. There are currently 17 students who have tested positive that are living in isolation housing and another 63 who have been exposed and are in quarantine housing as they await test results.
Members of the campus community with symptoms should isolate and contact UHS at 734-764-8320 for a free COVID-19 test. People with mild symptoms can use the University’s online assessment to initiate the testing process.
Students who test positive for COVID-19 after visiting a testing site not affiliated with the University should report their case here.
When asked for specific case count or positivity metrics that should lead to campus shutdown, Ringler-Cerniglia said these numbers do not matter as much as ability to control spread.
“It can be one thing if we’re identifying a high number of cases, but each one is being identified, isolated and quarantined, and we’re not seeing additional spread,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. “(If) we start to lose control of that spread and that ability to control outbreaks, we’re all in trouble.”
Daily News Editor Claire Hao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @clairehao_. Daily Staff Reporter John Grieve can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @jackeryg.
Daily Staff Reporter Jenna Siteman contributed to reporting.
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