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Statement from the CJU about Penn State's July 30 Town Hall

Published: at 12:00 PM

Note: This statement was written within the hour following the Town Hall so that it could be sent to various media outlets prior to their deadline for the next day’s print edition.

July 30, 2020

We are pleased that Penn State has finally provided more details about their COVID-19 planning for the fall semester, including information about their testing plan. It is clear that much work has gone into this initiative. However, we still have serious concerns about the university’s ability to safely facilitate the return of tens of thousands of students (and any accompanying family members), faculty, and staff to our campuses. Let us not forget that one Penn State student, Juan Garcia, has already lost his life due to the coronavirus.

Penn State is engaging in contradictory messaging by reassuring students that they can have an experience that “looks and feels like college should” (to quote President Barron) while expecting them to exercise unprecedented caution and self-restraint. It is placing the primary burden for the prevention of an outbreak on students.

The university plans to require 30,000 students, faculty, and staff to be tested about a week prior to their return to campus and will identify these individuals based on the prevalence of positive cases in their home counties. This number is very low given the total number of students and employees in the PSU system and may result in many undetected cases that will subsequently seed widespread outbreaks on campuses. In order to prevent the spread of infection, all individuals need to be tested shortly before or upon arrival. Unfortunately, this is already impossible given that many students who live off-campus have started to arrive. Furthermore, the plans to do surveillance (random testing) of 1% of all asymptomatic students, faculty, and staff per day is insufficient—recent literature on COVID testing on college campuses indicates that a far higher percentage is required to prevent an outbreak. This 1% equates to each person at Penn State being tested on average every 100 days; in comparison, Harvard plans to test all individuals every 3 days, Cornell plans to test all individuals every 5 days, and Boston University will test all undergraduates twice weekly. The difference is not simply a question of size: BU has fewer than 35,000 students as opposed to the more than 45,000 at Penn State’s University Park campus alone, yet BU will do between 5,000 and 6,000 daily tests (all processed at its in-house labs) as opposed to the 700 random tests that Penn State will conduct across all campuses. Details about turnaround time on results and contact tracing were also vague, and Penn State must become more transparent with its data. What is the scientific basis for these decisions about testing and prevention of contagion? What statistical models are they using?

We are very concerned about the influx of thousands of people coming to enjoy Penn State football and athletic events and possibly bringing the contagion to the State College community. We are equally concerned about Penn State becoming a “superspreader” to other parts of the state and nation through athletic events, visits to families, and other interactions. The university’s presentation today, unfortunately, did not provide any discussion of these very important points. We are concerned about the Commonwealth campuses and the extent to which these plans will be equally effective and comprehensive, given that University Park has been the focal point of planning. And finally, we are extremely concerned about the coverage of medical costs: will faculty and staff who become ill have to cover deductibles and any other treatment costs that are not covered by insurance? The administration has given us no definitive answer to this question, but a safe assumption is “yes.”