UConn Addresses Misconceptions, Questions About COVID-19 Dashboard and Data

Answers to frequently asked questions relating to the University's strategy of testing and containment in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The University seal

UConn releases two reports that detail its response to safety issues this week. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

With one month and almost a quarter-million page views to its credit, UConn’s COVID-19 informational dashboard has become the go-to source for data on testing and results at UConn Storrs and its regional campuses.

The University recently updated the dashboard’s format to delineate the locations and numbers of cases, continuing and expanding its testing of residential students and launching a second phase of testing of off-campus students.

UConn launched the dashboard in August as part of its commitment to transparency in communicating data about the pandemic and the University’s work to identify potential cases and curtail spread of the virus. The dashboard tracks important information on a University-wide basis excluding UConn Health, where cases are tracked separately.

Some helpful information and frequently asked questions:

Q:       Why are the numbers on UConn’s dashboard different from the ones that the New York Times has been publishing?

A:        The dashboard captures all student and employee numbers starting in August from UConn Storrs and the regional campuses, excluding UConn Health.

However, the New York Times’ tracker includes almost 100 cases among front-line medical workers and other UConn Health employees who contracted the virus last spring, during the height of patient hospitalizations at UConn John Dempsey Hospital. That hospital and UConn’s medical operations are on the separate Farmington campus, miles away from any other UConn campuses, and without significant crossover among the populations.

While UConn and UConn Health are two entities under one umbrella, their core missions, workforces, and physical locations are very different. A large percentage of UConn Health’s 4,600-person workforce are medical caregivers or support staff, so their exposure to COVID-19 and other illnesses is much different than it is for students and non-medical employees on our traditional campuses.

Because their operations are unlike the rest of the institution, the dashboard avoids combining UConn Health’s numbers with the Storrs/regionals figures and inadvertently causing confusion or errors.

The University has asked the New York Times several times to better delineate the medical and non-medical cases, and to draw a distinction between current cases and those at the height of the spring hospitalizations, but the newspaper has declined to do so.

The dashboard provides the most accurate, updated information about current cases among students and employees at UConn Storrs and the regional locations at Hartford, Stamford, Waterbury and Avery Point. (The School of Law has no on-campus courses this semester and therefore no mandatory student testing; employee results from that location and other regional campuses are included in the overall employee result figures).

Q:       Why doesn’t the math seem to add up on the dashboard? For instance, when starting with the number of cumulative cases minus the recovered cases, the total doesn’t equal the number in your “current positive/symptomatic cases” category.

A:        It’s helpful to keep in mind that the category names are short descriptions of the groups they include, and that categorizing cases is always a matter of capturing a single point in time in what’s essentially an ever-moving flow of information.

“Cumulative residential student positive results” is straightforward, and includes all cases in which a residential student received a positive COVID-19 result and was therefore moved to an isolation space for care.

“Recovered” includes those positive cases, plus other students who were also placed in isolation spaces and treated by Student Health and Wellness (SHaW) because they were symptomatic, even in the absence of a positive test. This precaution guards against the potential for false negatives, and attempts to stop the spread of other illnesses that may be similar to COVID-19.

“Current positive/symptomatic cases” includes confirmed positive cases plus those symptomatic students with negative tests. Even though the symptomatic students receive treatment and would later be reflected in the “recovered” category, they are not be counted among the cumulative confirmed positives.

Also, to a lesser degree, some students who test positive return to their homes to isolate and recover, and therefore are added later to the “recovered” category once they are medically cleared and return to campus.

UConn does not separate the confirmed positives from the symptomatic cases in the data because all of those individuals are being treated in isolation spaces based on the potential for known or potential spread of illness. The dashboard captures one point in time each day, but the numbers also can be fluid within the span of that day based on testing, with some symptomatic or suspected cases being confirmed as positive and others remaining in the “symptomatic” category.

Q:       Who’s getting tested? How do I know if I’m supposed to be tested, and where? Can students get tested even if they don’t have symptoms?

A:        UConn’s approach to testing is straightforward: If a student or employee is coming to a campus because they have to be there, they should be tested. This includes faculty, staff, and commuter students on every campus, both graduate and undergraduate. The University is using several strategies to accomplish this, with more details on the University’s reopening site.

Initial re-entry tests were required for all residential students and commuters who would be on a UConn campus for at least one course. That testing phase ended Sunday, Sept. 13. However, students continue to be tested in large numbers as part of UConn’s ongoing efforts to identify, contain, and treat cases.

UConn continues to test hundreds of students regularly as part of ongoing surveillance efforts. It includes testing for randomly selected students, as well as asymptomatic on- or off-campus Storrs students who request a test as a precaution.

UConn also continues testing wastewater from several on-campus spots to assess the presence of COVID-19 virus as a way to predict and limit the potential scope of outbreak.

Working with the UConn Institute for System Genomics and MARS lab (Microbial Analysis, Research and Services), UConn Student Health and Wellness has launched a pooled sampling method that significantly increases the speed and volume of testing.

Students provide a saliva sample in a tube, which is pooled with other samples to create one large batch for testing. If the pooled sample is negative, all students in that pool are deemed negative; if it is positive, the students in the pool are tested individually.

UConn Human Resources provides detailed information about testing for employees on its website, along with related guidance. Employees whose duties require them to be on campus for some or all of their work time have access to testing for potential exposure, and also may be called for random testing as part of broader health and safety surveillance efforts.

Q:       Why doesn’t the University include a listing on the dashboard of all locations in quarantine or areas such as specific residence halls with known outbreaks? Why doesn’t it list the locations of all off-campus cases, such as the town or apartment complex?

A:        When the spread of the virus reaches a point at which a large-scale intervention is necessary, the University notifies the campus community and the affected students directly. That was the case with the quarantines at Garrigus Suites and The Oaks on the Square apartments.

It’s not unusual, though, for quarantines to be put in place for part or all of a residential floor or in portions of a building, without the entirety of the complex also being under quarantine. This occurs when the virus has been detected among cohort groups – i.e., suitemates, students with communal bathrooms, and so forth – but it has not spread beyond those groups.

These smaller-scale quarantines are put in place to prevent larger spread, and have been successful in that mission. In cases when the spread becomes more prevalent or large-scale interventions are needed, however, the University will share that information widely.

Although most commuter students live in towns neighboring the UConn Storrs campus, many also live in other communities either in rentals or at their families’ homes.

UConn does not delineate how many student cases are in particular non-campus communities because, first, they are captured among the counts of the local health districts for those areas; and second, because it would be inaccurate to presume that students with positive cases are more infectious or less likely to be compliant than other members of the general population.

UConn works closely with landlords and off-campus students to monitor their wellbeing and to remind them of their responsibilities as good neighbors and members of the community in which they live. The University also works closely with the Eastern Highlands Health District, the health agency for this region.

Q:       What’s the difference between being in quarantine and being in isolation? What does the dashboard mean by “isolation beds in use”?

A:        “Isolation beds” are individual rooms in which students who are known or suspected to have COVID-19 are able to live and receive care while recovering.

Students who are in on-campus isolation beds receive food deliveries from UConn Dining Services and arrangements are made to help them continue their classwork remotely. SHaW provides daily telemedicine visits with both residential and off-campus students in isolation, who must not have face-to-face interaction with others until they recover.

Students who are in quarantine should remain in their living spaces and cannot have guests or visit other residence halls, classroom buildings, or other common spaces. They can go outside for solitary activity such as taking walks or picking up groceries and takeout, but masks must be worn and physical distancing is required at all times when away from their quarantine space.

Many more details on these terms and other health and safety information can be found on the University’s reopening site, and on SHaW’s site.