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New COVID-19 research from the University of Michigan reveals little spread of the virus between the campus and the surrounding community last fall. 

Lead researcher Dr. Adam Lauring, a virologist and infectious disease physician at Michigan Medicine, told The Michigan Daily the results of the study are important because previous work related to COVID-19 transmission in college environments has been quite ambiguous in the past. This is mostly because colleges around the country had different COVID-19 prevention measures in place last year, Lauring said.

“Our goal of the study was to try to understand how viruses spread both within the campus community of students and the surrounding community,” Lauring said. “There has been a lot of discussion on how those two groups of people relate. I think the results of the study would be of interest to anyone wondering how COVID spreads in these (environments).”

Lauring said that though the research cannot say how most COVID-19 cases are linked to each other, he believes that the main reason for the disconnect between cases in these two populations is the communities the two demographics occupy. While interactions between local residents and students in Ann Arbor were common last fall in areas like bars and restaurants, Lauring said he presumes that students mostly congregated with students and locals with locals. 

“I think that, whatever it is, students are congregating with each other more than they are congregating with non-students in the community,” Lauring said. “That is probably what we are seeing here in terms of the limited amount of transmission we were able to observe between (these two groups).”

The data from the study suggest that some COVID-19 cases were introduced from the broader community into the student community, and a few of these introductions caused a subsequent cluster of COVID-19 cases within the student population. 

In an email to The Daily, Dr. Joseph Eisenberg, epidemiology professor in the School of Public Heath, wrote he was surprised by the fact that case clusters within the student population did not spread into the surrounding community.

“What is a bit surprising is that (the study’s) data suggests that these case clusters were contained and didn’t spread back into the broader community,” Eisenberg wrote. “This could be because students are more likely to socialize with other students. It could be that they bought more take out food using DoorDash or other delivery services.  And maybe when they did visit a restaurant they were still mostly socializing with other students.”

Public Health junior Janna Girotto said she used contactless delivery services when ordering food from restaurants and diligently wore her mask in public settings to limit her contact with anyone outside her circle of friends. 

“My friends and I didn’t really feel comfortable with (even outdoor dining options) just because of how high the rates of COVID were in Washtenaw,” Girotto said. “My interactions were very limited. If I went anywhere I had my mask on, even outdoors.” 

During the 2020-2021 academic year, a large majority of classes at the University were held online. The study also concluded that at the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester, most student COVID-19 cases were unrelated to one another. Eisenberg shared his reasoning for why this may be the case. 

“This is not a surprising result,” Eisenberg wrote. “We find that in most outbreaks, when we analyze this type of molecular data or conduct contact tracing studies, that most cases transmit to very few if any, but a few transmit to a lot of people. Sometimes we call these people superspreaders. These data seem to reinforce that this phenomenon was occurring on campus last year.”   

Students are now required to be vaccinated, and masks are required inside all University buildings. Lauring said he and the research team are continuing the study to see how vaccination may impact their previous results. 

“The good news is that with the student population being so well vaccinated at the University of Michigan, we have seen a dramatic reduction in student cases,” Lauring said. “That means we don’t have a whole lot of transmission events to study, which is a good thing.”

Daily Staff Reporter Nadir Al-Saidi can be reached at alsaidin@umich.edu.