COVID-19 and higher education in mid-October: infections, deaths, plans, seasons, toggle terms, and a data disaster

The third surge of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is under way. Outbreaks have been worsening in many states for more than a month, and new COVID-19 cases jumped 18 percent this week, bringing the seven-day average to more than 51,000 cases a day. Though testing rose by 8 percent nationally, that’s not enough of an increase to explain the steep rise in cases. Meanwhile, COVID-19 hospitalizations, which had previously been creeping upward slowly, jumped more than 14 percent from a week earlier.

With no national tracking system, and statewide data available only sporadically, colleges are making their own rules for how to tally infections. While The Times’s survey is believed to be the most comprehensive account available, it is also a near-certain undercount… [A]t least 140 other [campuses] ignored inquiries or refused to answer questions…

Because colleges report data differently, and because cases continued to emerge even in the months when most campuses were closed, The Times is counting all reported cases since the start of the pandemic.

The Times has counted more than 171,000 additional cases at colleges since late July; of those, more than 48,000 cases came since late September.

Of colleges with in-person classes and more than 5,000 undergraduates, only 25% are conducting mass screening or random “surveillance” testing of students. Only 6% are routinely testing all of their students. Most, instead, are relying on only diagnostic testing of symptomatic students, which many experts say comes too late to control outbreaks and understates the true number of cases.

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