Study: COVID Testing Key Mitigation Tool for Campuses

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A new study from the Texas A&M School of Public Health found that regular testing kept rates of infection lower for college athletes and non-athletes living on campus than for those in the same demographic living elsewhere. 

The study, which was co-authored by the School of Public Health’s Rebecca Fischer and Benika Dixon expands on previous findings using data from the Southeastern Conference’s 2020 football season that found athletes had a 50 percent reduction in risk in getting COVID-19 over college students who were not athletes. 

The research also shows that non-athlete students had lower rates of COVID-19 infection than other young adults during the same period, suggesting that college students do not place themselves in a riskier situation by being on campus.

“There was this overwhelming assumption by parents, the public and school administrators that we’re sending students to college, and since they have to go to class together, we’re going to have more infections in that setting,” Fischer said. “We observed in this analysis that there were a variety of protection schemes. The more frequently the university promoted testing resulted in a lower risk to those students.”

The percentage of positive COVID-19 tests results among U.S. young adults between the ages of 18-24 increased from 7 percent to approximately 17 percent from August through December 2020. In comparison, the highest positivity among college athletes was 0.8 percent, while for college non-athlete students it was 6.6 percent.

The report suggests at least 3 takeaways:

1.    Collegiate athletes do not appear to have borne increased risk of infection compared with their non-athlete peers.

2.     Colleges and universities may be able to create low-risk settings, even during acute infectious disease events. Athlete and non-athlete students alike (at least for the schools that made data publicly available) had lower incidence and positive tests compared with their peers in the general public during the same time frame, perhaps associated with campus testing programs, with more rigorous testing associated with decreased campus incidence. Moreover, institutions that incorporated protection strategies that were more similar to guidelines for athletes (in part or full) seem to have had the lowest risk levels. 

3.     Findings suggest that public health tools remain useful and important in high-risk settings and dynamic situations. Robust active surveillance, aligned with guidance from the NCAA, SEC, and athletics programs across the nation, was associated with interrupted transmission and improved health monitoring and safety among athletics participants, even during high-risk activities.

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