Student test results before University of Texas football opener suggest silent spread

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AUSTIN, Texas — Among the 1,200 University of Texas students who were tested for the coronavirus in advance of last weekend’s football opener — a negative test was required for students to attend — 95 tested positive.

The results, among students who were not exhibiting symptoms, suggest that the virus could be silently spreading on campus to a degree not previously known.

University health officials later determined that 26 of the students who tested positive for the virus had previously tested positive and had recovered to an extent that they were no longer considered contagious.

Even excluding those 26 cases, the positivity rate of the nearly 1,200 students is 5.8%.

That’s a much higher positivity rate than the university community has seen overall.

Amy Young, the vice dean of professional practice at the Dell Medical School and a member of the executive committee for fall opening, said that without comparing the students who were tested for the football game to the students who have been tested as part of the proactive community testing program, it’s impossible to say how much overlap there is between the two groups.

“I think there’s selection bias in all the testing that we’re doing. In this case, it happened to be kids who had the propensity to want to go watch a football game,” she said. “From my perspective this broadens our view of what’s going on with our students.”

Just 2% of the over 7,900 proactive community tests have been positive since early June. These tests are administered to asymptomatic faculty, students and staff who volunteer to be tested.

The university has reported a total of 1,117 cases of the virus since March, with more than 600 cases reported since classes started Aug. 26.

Young said she believes the proactive community testing data provides a more accurate picture of the overall virus transmission in the campus community, since it represents more overall tests.

Hidden transmission?

Spencer Fox, associate director of the university’s COVID-19 modeling consortium, said the higher positivity rate among the football fans could be attributed to the small sample size of 1,200 students. However, he said it also could show that certain students are taking more risks than others when it comes to the coronavirus.

“These are students who are willing to attend an in-person event, which is a risky event,” he said. “Anytime you bring that many people together, even if they are all spread out in the stands, it has the potential to have transmission there.”

Fox said he found the higher positivity rate among this group concerning.

“It could mean there’s hidden transmission happening on campus that we’re not detecting from the campus testing plan,” he said. “The same students who might be willing to take more risks with how they are interacting with their friends, whether it’s parting or hanging out, those same students might be more likely to attend UT football games. That could be the explanation for that higher positive rate.”

The university banned parties on and off campus this semester, and students are expected to comply with Austin’s guidelines limiting in-person gatherings. According to UT’s student conduct rules, those who deliberately engage in behavior that threatens the health and safety of students, faculty, staff and visitors will be subject to disciplinary action.

Within the 78705 ZIP code, which includes neighborhoods to the west and north of campus, there were 243 calls to the city’s 311 line related to gatherings, social distancing and face coverings between Aug. 20 and Sept. 15, according to a city of Austin spokesperson. It is unclear how many of these calls were related to student behavior, but between Aug. 1 and Aug. 20, before most students had moved back for the fall semester, that same ZIP code saw only 39 calls.

University officials are evaluating the coronavirus protocols that were in place for the first football game and determining any possible changes for future games. Only students were required to be tested before attending last weekend’s game, a safety measure UT spokesman JB Bird said was designed to help the community.

“Because of their age, students are more likely to be asymptomatic and unaware that they are positive, so that was part of the decision,” he said.

Bird said the university is looking at other ways to increase student testing, which will help the university understand transmission rates among students and stop the virus from spreading. The university has conducted between 1,200 and 1,800 tests a week since Aug. 23, he said.

“Our campus testing has been in full force now for three weeks, we have the capacity to do 5,000 a week and we’re working hard to get students to come in and volunteer to take the tests,” he said. “We don’t want there to be any stigma attached to getting tested.”

Fox said that although the students tested before Saturday’s football game might not be representative of the student body as a whole, testing students before games still provides the university with valuable information about the prevalence of the virus on campus.

“All of the testing protocols that UT is undertaking give kind of a different slice of the student body, and this slice is showing some different information than the proactive community testing slice,” he said. “It highlights how important it is to be testing as frequently as possible and as widely as possible so we can get a clear picture of how the virus is spreading and so we can find positive cases.”


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