College students can safely return to school this fall if they are tested for the coronavirus every two to three days, strictly observe social distancing and “adhere to basic prevention practices,” the lead author of a new study told “The Story” Monday.
“The analysis shows that there is a safe way to reopen college where the key element of the plan is screening all students for the virus at very high frequency every two or three days using a rapid, inexpensive test alongside strict, vigilant adherence to social distancing and other basic prevention practices,” Yale School of Public Health professor A. David Paltiel told host Sandra Smith.
The study, which used digital simulations to track how the virus would spread among a hypothetical cohort of 5,000 students, was conducted by researchers from the Yale School of Public Health, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
Paltiel added that if university officials “could choose between testing every two or three days with a test that was pretty good and pretty inexpensive or a much more accurate test at higher costs, and only take it once a week, you would take the first one.”
However, he emphasized, “social distancing has to go hand-in-hand with the frequent testing program” to properly contain the virus.
The study comes as academic institutions across the country grapple with how to educate students during the coronavirus pandemic. Many colleges have announced alternatives to in-person courses when the fall 2020 semester begins.
Paltiel’s study estimated the frequent screening would cost $470 per student per semester, according to the Washington Post. The professor acknowledged Monday that “our recommendation may very well be beyond the financial and logistical reach of many universities … I don’t think it’s prohibitively expensive, but that’s for the schools and the students and their families to decide for themselves.”
The professor went on to warn that some colleges “are considering the option of carefully monitoring students for just symptoms of COVID and using those signs [or] symptoms to trigger testing and isolation and contact tracing.
“We explored thousands of scenarios and we’ve failed to find even one possible circumstance under which that would be sufficient and the reason is pretty clear,” he added. “This is a virus that is very easily spread asymptomatically by silent spreaders. You can’t play catch up with this virus.”
He added, “Schools that test and respond only when symptoms have been observed is like a fire department that responds only to calls when the house is already burned to the ground.”