The impact of phased university reopenings on mitigating the spread of COVID-19: a modeling study


Abstract Background Several American universities have experienced COVID-19 outbreaks, risking the health of their students, employees, and local communities. Such large outbreaks have drained university resources and forced several institutions to shift to remote learning and send students home, further contributing to community disease spread. Many of these outbreaks can be attributed to the large numbers of active infections returning to campus, alongside high-density social events that typically take place at the semester start. In the absence of effective mitigation measures (e.g., high-frequency testing), a phased return of students to campus is a practical intervention to minimize the student population size and density early in the semester, reduce outbreaks, preserve institutional resources, and ultimately help mitigate disease spread in communities. Methods We develop dynamic compartmental SARS-CoV-2 transmission models to assess the impact of a phased reopening, in conjunction with pre-arrival testing, on minimizing on-campus outbreaks and preserving university resources (measured by isolation bed capacity). We assumed an on-campus population of N = 7500, 40% of infected students require isolation, 10 day isolation period, pre-arrival testing removes 90% of incoming infections, and that phased reopening returns one-third of the student population to campus each month. We vary the disease reproductive number (Rt) between 1.5 and 3.5 to represent the effectiveness of alternative mitigation strategies throughout the semester. Results Compared to pre-arrival testing only or neither intervention, phased reopening with pre-arrival testing reduced peak active infections by 3 and 22% (Rt = 1.5), 22 and 29% (Rt = 2.5), 41 and 45% (Rt = 3.5), and 54 and 58% (improving Rt), respectively. Required isolation bed capacity decreased between 20 and 57% for values of Rt ≥ 2.5. Conclusion Unless highly effective mitigation measures are in place, a reopening with pre-arrival testing substantially reduces peak number of active infections throughout the semester and preserves university resources compared to the simultaneous return of all students to campus. Phased reopenings allow institutions to ensure sufficient resources are in place, improve disease mitigation strategies, or if needed, preemptively move online before the return of additional students to campus, thus preventing unnecessary harm to students, institutional faculty and staff, and local communities.

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