This College’s COVID Tracking Program Could Serve as a Model for Future Pandemics

June 9, 2021
College girl looking at her phone
Fortunately, COVID-19 cases are significantly declining in the United States, thanks to the widespread availability of numerous vaccines and local testing, tracing, and masking initiatives. However, the lessons learned and the strategies utilized while the pandemic was raging through the U.S. should not be forgotten now that the worst of the crisis is likely over—especially when they could be used to keep college and university students safe from on-campus spread of disease.

As a recent New York Times article explored, Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, CO took a data-centric approach to tracking the spread of COVID-19 on campus and keeping case counts relatively low within their student body. Based on their promising results, the measures that C.M.U. administrators took in collaboration with the Cambridge-based Broad Institute might just be a preview of what disease-tracking on college campuses will look like in the future.

Creating “An App for Outbreaks”

Following outbreaks of mumps on several college campuses in Massachusetts in 2016 and 2017, Dr. Pardis Sabeti began working on a smartphone app that would allow students to report potential disease symptoms, and allow school staff to keep track of those reports to notify students if others in their classrooms or residence halls were sick. After the onset of COVID-19, development of the app was fast-tracked for a trial run before the end of 2020. C.M.U. proved to be a perfect test case with its plans to resume in-person classes in Fall 2020.

Upon returning to campus, students regularly inputted information into the “Scout” app about where they had travelled recently, who they had been in contact with, and whether they had any potential COVID-19 symptoms. School administrators then viewed aggregated data from students in a platform called Lookout, provided by Boston-based Fathom Information Design, where they could identify patterns and take action to prevent further COVID spread inside and outside of close-contact groups that they nicknamed “mavilies.”

The Benefits of a Multifaceted Approach to COVID Tracking

In addition to requiring “green” results from Scout before students could enter classrooms, C.M.U. also used data from students, the on-campus community testing site’s COVID test results, and wastewater testing to identify where COVID cases were popping up on campus and what could be done to slow down the spread. In one instance in September 2020, the wastewater testing program allowed university administrators to identify several COVID cases inside one residence hall that neither on-site testing nor self-reported student data had detected.

By combining multiple approaches to disease tracking and increasing the testing of staff members when cases began to rise in November 2020, C.M.U. was able to keep students on campus throughout the fall semester and into the spring. On a campus with over 10,000 students, the highest single-week case count was just 290.

The Future of Public Health in College Communities

While both students and school administrators responded positively to C.M.U.’s comprehensive testing and tracing program, the future of this kind of data-driven approach is unknown. It would not be surprising to see other colleges and universities across the United States adopt similar programs, but there may also be concerns about the privacy of students and their good-faith participation in self-reporting measures. The self-reporting, in particular, proved problematic during the pilot program.

In a broad sense, C.M.U.’s COVID management system likely heralds a new way for colleges to look at protecting the health of their students. Whether apps are used to blunt the harm caused by a global pandemic or simply to lessen the impact of flu season, more programs like Scout and Lookout are sure to be on the horizon.