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Colleges Report More COVID-19 Cases As Students Return To Campus

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have not even made it to September, and some universities have already had time to open, suffer coronavirus outbreaks and be forced to adjust. Some of the latest news comes from the University of Alabama. It reported more than 500 positive cases. At the University of Southern California, the school's student health center is reporting an alarming increase - their words - in the number of cases. In Milledgeville, Ga., at Georgia College, about 5% of the student body has COVID-19. NPR's Elissa Nadworny covers higher education, is on the line. Good morning.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Those numbers sound pretty bad. How widespread is this problem?

NADWORNY: So this is definitely happening across the country as colleges bring students back. But it's worth noting that many of these schools have large enrollment numbers, right? They have 30,000 students. That's - for instance, at the University of Alabama, that's the undergrad population. And so that's important context.

You know, it's still unclear how many positive cases schools will take before they need to shut down. At the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, that number was about 130 students. So they got that number, and then they transitioned to online and sent students home.

INSKEEP: And you can sense the different levels of tolerance there because 130 students at UNC...

NADWORNY: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Which is also a very big, big campus - they shut the place down. University of Alabama - still going with 500 cases out of that 30,000. Is that right?

NADWORNY: That's right, yep.

INSKEEP: OK. What is the relationship between the number of cases we've just been cited and the amount of testing? How much are universities testing?

NADWORNY: Well, some colleges are testing in a widespread way, and they're testing contacts of those positive cases. But the utility of testing really depends on how the college is doing it. So take the University of Georgia. You know, they're only testing about 300 folks a day. They have 30,000 undergrads. Another example is USC, which you mentioned. Students actually are not on campus. All classes there are online. So new positive cases there come from off-campus students getting tested at the student health.

You know, on the other hand - and this is a big thing - many colleges aren't testing unless students have symptoms. So I spoke with David Paltiel, who studies public health at Yale. He says many young people are asymptomatic. They're mildly ill. So symptomatic-only testing means you'll miss a lot of cases, allowing the virus to spread.

DAVID PALTIEL: You can't play catch-up with this virus. You can't move swiftly enough to contain an outbreak once the kids have been observed to have developed symptoms. Now they could respond, well, if nobody's symptomatic, then what's the harm, right? And the harm is that you're going to transmit that not only to other students but to faculty, to staff, the dining hall workers, the custodians.

INSKEEP: Is there a connection between these outbreaks and the way that college students behave, which, of course, we all know how college students behave?

NADWORNY: Yeah. Well, when students engage in high-risk behaviors - large gatherings with lots of people without masks for a long period of time - the virus spreads. You know, in response to this blame game, students have said, hey, the universities are the ones that brought us back.

I spoke with Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease physician and public health expert, about punitive threats. And she said, you know, they're not helping.

CELINE GOUNDER: We know shaming and blaming people for public health interventions doesn't work. You know, whether you're talking about sexually transmitted diseases or you're talking about drug use and drinking, you never want to do something that will drive behavior underground and make it more risky.

NADWORNY: So let's just remember that there are lots of students that fill a college campus. You know, we talked to a first-year at UNC who said as soon as he heard there were cases, he buckled down. He locked himself in their dorm. Students want to be on campus. They don't want to get sent home. They're doing their best to stay safe.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATTHEW HALSALL'S "THE END OF DUKKHA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.