In Depth

What can British universities learn from Covid outbreaks on US campuses?

College cities across America are seeing surges in coronavirus cases as new academic year begins

US towns with universities are seeing a dramatic spike in coronavirus cases since students began returning three weeks ago, according to a newly published analysis.

More than 51,000 cases have been reported at more than 1,000 campuses across the US during the pandemic. And around half of the 203 counties in which students make up at least 10% of the population are now reporting their worst figures since the start of August, a review by The New York Times (NYT) found.

With universities in Britain also preparing to welcome back students for the new academic year, what lessons can the UK learn from the US?

What is happening?

The NYT analysis found that university towns across America have become coronavirus hotspots since campuses began reopening following coronavirus lockdowns and the summer break.

“In the two rural counties abutting Washington State University and the University of Idaho, which are about eight miles apart, weekly coronavirus cases have risen from single digits in the first few months of the pandemic, to double digits in July, to more than 300 cases per week by the end of last month,” reports London-based newspaper The Times.

And “while there has not generally been a rise in deaths from coronavirus in areas with universities, some public health experts fear that young people, who usually have milder effects, will then spread it more widely”.

A student group at the University of Kansas, where there are nearly 500 cases, is planning a “strike” to push the university to move to remote learning, according to regional paper The Kansas City Star.

Students at the University of Iowa staged a similar “sickout” last week.

But experts have warned that it is already too late to contain the outbreaks.

Appearing on NBC’s Today show last week, Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said: “When you send them home, particularly when you’re dealing with a university where people come from multiple different locations, you could be seeding the different places with infection.”

What can the UK learn?

As the NYT notes, it’s unclear “how many infections in a community outside of campus are definitively tied to campus outbreaks”.

But epidemiologists have warned that even with strong contact-tracing systems, “it would be difficult to completely contain the virus on a campus when students shop, eat and drink in town, and local residents work at the college”, says the paper.

The UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) agrees that the return of students to universities may increase the spread of Covid-19 both locally and nationwide.

Experts have also “highlighted the dangers of an outbreak coinciding with students going home during the Christmas holidays and infecting their extended families”, says The Independent.

Sage warns in a report released last week that adding that “a critical risk is a large number of infected students seeding outbreaks across the UK, influencing national transmission”.

In response, the Department for Education said that “the safety and well-being of university students and staff is always a priority” and that advice will “underpin the protective measures being taken to open universities safely for students, staff and local communities”.

All the same, if the return to UK colleges coincides with an increase in infections, the hike could cause tension between students and local residents.

In the US, officials in three Connecticut towns – Mansfield, West Hartford and Windham – last month wrote a letter to state authorities to “urging them to enforce strict social distancing measures for college students coming from areas with higher infection rates”, according to Reuters.

“As host communities for large numbers of students, we believe it is absolutely necessary to have further restrictions on outdoor and indoor gatherings to protect the health of both our permanent residents and our student residents,” the letter said.

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