COUNTING COVID-19: Louisiana universities differ in data approaches

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BATON ROUGE, La. (WVLA/WGMB) — Louisiana health and higher education leaders will meet Wednesday to discuss how to handle positive COVID-19 cases on university campuses.

The meeting comes as Gov. John Bel Edwards encourages state-run schools to disclose more data regarding positive tests among students and staff.

“We do believe there needs to be accurate data that is made public by the universities,” Edwards said at a news conference Tuesday. “It’s one of the things we’re going to be working with.”

Louisiana schools have taken varied measures so far. Southern University updates its online dashboard of cases each weekday. The University of Louisiana-Lafayette intends to launch its own dashboard for the upcoming fall semester.

“This is a tool of transparency and awareness, and modeled by similar dashboards published by state and national agencies,” Southern University spokeswoman Janene Tate said in an email Tuesday.

“In some circumstances, in some settings, it makes sense to have a dashboard, because you have a group that’s cohesive and right here,” said University of Louisiana System President Jim Henderson, whose oversight of nine institutions includes UL-Lafayette.

Wednesday’s meeting may also address concerns from schools that haven’t posted student and employee case counts online. Leaders at Nicholls State, Northwestern State, and the University of New Orleans — each part of the UL System — have argued that any public tracker they provide would likely undercount cases, especially on campuses with fewer dormitories or testing sites.

“In other circumstances, mostly kids live within driving distance of home, and they’re in and out, and it’s more like a transactional relationship,” Henderson said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and that’s the last thing we would want.”

UNO spokesman Adam Norris voiced similar concerns Tuesday, instead deferring to the Louisiana Department of Health’s daily dashboard.

“Case reporting is really the domain of public health officials at the local and state level,” Norris said. “We aren’t able to generate case reports with the same accuracy and integrity that they do. The reason is this: The only way the University [of New Orleans] becomes aware of a positive test from a student or employee is if that person self-reports.”

Administrators across the UL System, not just in Lafayette, stress they are still tracking cases and informing relevant parties accordingly.

“We plan to periodically share the self-reported case figures with our employees and students,” Norris said.

“When you find a confirmed case, then do quick, robust contact tracing and quarantining and isolation, that’s how we’re going to get ahead of this disease,” Henderson said.

Officials at Louisiana Tech, also a UL member school, are still discussing how to manage COVID-19 case data in their fall semester, which begins in September.

Louisiana State University, which starts its semester this month, maintained a case dashboard this past spring but removed it, citing privacy concerns. A university spokesman told Tuesday that administrators are discussing whether or not to revive it.

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