When the sun disappeared behind Duke University’s West Campus chapel on a recent Sunday, an acquisition was underway.
Several masked students from the lower grades wandered around, reading on the grass, skateboarding the quads and generally enjoying the bright late summer weather.
In a normal year, freshmen and sophomores attend the university̵
But first and second year live here now. As part of its plan to combat Covid, the university allowed only freshmen and sophomores to reside on campus for the fall semester, distributing around 3,000 students across its accommodations, one per room.
These moves, coupled with a rigorous weekly testing schedule that is examining thousands of students, faculty and staff, have helped keep Duke’s positive cases low and could prove to be a model for other institutions hoping to avoid the fate of universities all around. the country they have had an uncontrolled experience. outbreaks.
In late June, Duke informed the students that he would require them to undergo tests before they could set foot on campus. That first round of over 5,500 tests found 11 positive cases.
Steven Dallas, a third-year law student from New York, was among those tested.
“It made sense to have a baseline measure of how prevalent Covid was within the community, rather than going blind and having all these people from all over the country coming to campus and then not knowing who is sick or not,” Dallas said. “That wouldn’t be a particularly good strategy.”
In addition to the usual warnings about masks and social distancing, Duke has limited all student gatherings to 10 or less, a stricter restriction than the current Durham City rule. But the cornerstone of Duke’s plan has always been experimentation, university spokesman Michael Schoenfeld said. “Clearly the more targeted and frequent tests that can be performed, the better information you have and the greater ability to identify and address any type of activity before it turns into an outbreak,” Schoenfeld said.
Last month the university announced that it would run weekly surveillance tests for its students, faculty and staff. The most recent round totaled 14,141 tests, returning 8 positive results.
Since the beginning of August, Duke has run more than 58,000 Covid tests. Seventy-five came back positive.
Schoenfeld admitted that Duke has had advantages in his fight against Covid, including his large medical campus, funding for ongoing, “horrendously expensive” surveillance tests and sheer luck.
“We are an independent private university. We are able to make decisions quickly and implement those decisions and do what is best,” Schoenfeld said. “Our motto in this has been to survive and advance. We feel good about where we are today, but we could do everything right and still be one day away from an epidemic. “
Ten miles down the road, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took a different approach.
Despite warnings from the county health department, students and staff, the UNC invited students to return for a mix of in-person and online classes. Some canceled their housing contracts on campus, but about 6,000 were in the dorms the first week of class.
The university opted against mandatory tests for students prior to their return, claiming that popular tests went against CDC recommendations and could “create a false sense of security.”
The following week, more than 130 students and staff tested positive.
The university quickly reversed course, moving its classes online and asking students to leave campus.
“This is certainly not what we were hoping for this fall semester,” said Kevin Guskiewicz, the UNC Chancellor at the time. “Our first priority has always been the safety of the community.”
Since the start of the pandemic, 1,138 students and 72 employees have tested positive. The university performed a total of 4,612 tests.
The university’s approach has sparked a wave of criticism, including a hot editorial in the Daily Tar Heel that read with the headline “We’ve all seen it.”
Dr. Bill Petri, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Virginia, said that while he can understand the argument that testing creates complacency, aggressive testing, contact tracing and quarantine remain the best methods for contain viral spread.
“It’s not rocket science,” Petri said. “The way to keep it under control is to do a lot of tests very quickly. You go out and identify the person with the infection and isolate them, then find out every single person who was exposed to that person during the infectious period and quarantine them all. “
UNC currently offers voluntary tests for students living locally, but few are taking advantage of it. Last week the university recorded 137 tests and nine positive cases.
While public institutions like the UNC – which is overseen by a council of governors elected by the state general assembly – often have to wade through different bureaucratic and financial waters, this kind of “shoe leather epidemiology” is something that all universities do. they can do, Petri added.
“It takes a lot of effort, but if you do it, you control the (pandemic),” he said.
The sentiment among the students, said Samantha Surprenant, a 21-year-old sports and exercise science student, is fear and frustration – the feeling that, with better precautions, much of what happened was preventable.
“A lot of other schools have imposed tests before returning,” Surprenant said. “There was no reason we couldn’t have done it.”
Surprenant, who is a resident consultant, added that she felt left in the dark by the administration. But if there is a bright side, he said, it is that other institutions, and the university itself, can learn from the UNC’s missteps. “What happened was exactly what I had expected,” Surprenant said. “We could have done something more, but we didn’t.”