Penn State Faculty Group Projects 2,500 Student Coronavirus Cases This Fall

A group of Penn State faculty members is projecting at least 2,500 student coronavirus cases on campus this fall, according to simulation models released this week.

The Coalition For A Just University (CJU/PSU), which mainly consists of faculty members, published the results of its simulations after nearly two months of work. The models were heavily influenced by published simulations from Yale and Harvard scientists that helped create coronavirus testing plans for Boston-area universities.

One model predicted Penn State could report more than 1,800 asymptomatic cases and 700 symptomatic cases before students return home for Thanksgiving in November. The simulation, which accounted for a low transmission rate and “optimistic” turnaround times, also projected two student deaths.

One of the group’s many projection models

The study also found Penn State could fill all its quarantine and isolation rooms within the next 90 days if testing plans don’t change. Penn State plans to isolate students in select Eastview Terrace residence hall buildings on campus.

Models predicted student cases, deaths, isolations, and more, and compared the projected figures for Penn State’s current testing plans to an “ideal” scenario that would test about 10 times as many students. Currently, Penn State plans to test about 1% of its population (~700 individuals) each day through random surveillance testing. The university tested approximately 30,000 students, faculty, and staff before the semester began, but CJU/PSU argued those numbers should’ve been higher.

The faculty members said they created the simulations after becoming dissatisfied with Penn State’s lack of transparency.

“We have repeatedly asked Penn State to provide data modeling and other forms of scientific evidence to justify its testing policies,” the faculty members wrote on their website. “Such evidence has not been forthcoming. As a result, CJU faculty is now showing that we have science on our side.”

After the report’s publication, the organization sent its findings to the university. Later, a Penn State spokesperson called the findings “flawed,” according to the Centre Daily Times, and said the report didn’t take several variables into account.

“This group has advocated against any reopening of campuses,” spokesperson Lisa Powers said in a written statement to the Centre Daily Times. “This latest, anonymous communication in their advocacy effort fails to properly account for critical factors like contact tracing and adaptive surveillance approaches. The university has been transparent about its plans, which have been developed with faculty scientists who are health and supply chain experts to significantly exceed the Pennsylvania governor’s guidance for return to campuses.”

Last week, CJU/PSU wrote an Onward State guest column reiterating concerns with Penn State’s fall semester planning. The op-ed specifically targeted the university’s COVID-19 Compact, a pledge outlining Penn State’s fall semester policies students must agree to before using LionPATH or returning to campus. According to its mission statement, the organization is “committed to working for greater transparency, equity, job security, and safety in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic” and involving faculty in meaningful decision-making processes.

Powers repeated Penn State is taking a “layered approach” to its coronavirus testing and taking necessary precautions. However, Penn State hasn’t yet published its models or findings relating to coronavirus testing.

“For weeks, we have asked Penn State to share its data modeling and other scientific findings it has used to develop its testing plans,” professor and CJU/PSU organizer Sarah Townsend said. “We have been met with total silence, leading us to wonder: Has Penn State bothered to do any data modeling? Does it have any evidence to show that its testing plan will work to prevent an outbreak? Well, now we have evidence of our own to show that its plan is not sufficient and that it needs to greatly increase testing to keep everyone safe.”

Though each model reflects a different aspect of coronavirus testing, they agree on one point: More testing is needed at Penn State. According to CJU/PSU, Penn State’s random tests of 1% of students, faculty, and staff each day isn’t enough. But if it were to expand to 10%, Penn State could see fewer than 200 student cases over the next three months.

The University of Illinois, for example, plans to test all students twice per week. It’ll also set up nearly 20 on-campus coronavirus testing sites to provide easy testing access to students.

“I’d like to see Penn State implement a testing plan that’s on par with the one at Illinois,” Townsend told the Centre Daily Times. “All of the experts say widespread, frequent testing is absolutely essential to preventing outbreaks, and Penn State’s current plan does not constitute widespread, frequent testing.”

The reports also found numbers would generally decrease if Penn State had expanded its pre-arrival coronavirus testing. This month, the university shipped at-home tests to approximately 30,000 students, faculty, and staff members in high-risk areas where the virus’ prevalence may be higher than average.

So far, a few notable universities across the country have run into trouble upon their return to campus. Tuesday afternoon, Michigan State announced it’d move all classes online due to coronavirus-related concerns, while UNC-Chapel Hill reverted to remote instruction after its campus nearly hit a 14% coronavirus positivity rate.

To date, Centre County has reported 399 coronavirus cases and 11 deaths since testing began in March. Penn State Athletics has reported eight cases among its student-athletes, while the university itself confirmed one student died from coronavirus-related complications in July.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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