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It’s time to stop assuming students are spreading COVID

  • 11 December 2020
  • By Graham Galbraith

This blog was kindly contributed by Professor Graham Galbraith, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth.

Most universities have been testing students as part of Government-led pre-Christmas mass testing. Many of us have seen a very low number of positive results. Last week, for instance, only 0.2% of the several thousand University of Portsmouth students tested (professionally, by nurses, not volunteers) came back positive.

Not only are very low levels of student infection at the end of term inconsistent with SAGE’s expectations in September (page eight), they raise a broader question: to what extent are students an ongoing factor in infection spread? 

The conventional wisdom, sometimes based on little more than prejudice, is that students are causing infection rate increases in their towns and cities. As Portsmouth is one of the handful of universities who have been testing (asymptomatic) students since September we have the evidence to interrogate the conventional wisdom. 

Using our own and publicly available data, our researchers have plotted the infection numbers in Portsmouth. There is no evidence that the ongoing rise in infections in the City can be attributed to students.

The graph below shows University of Portsmouth student infections, total city-wide infections and infections of all 15-24 year olds in Portsmouth (this includes students); it also shows the numbers of our students who have been self-isolating. 

What does the graph tell us?

It is clear that student infections up until about 8-10 October correlated with the trend of the City population. It is difficult to infer who infected who although we will get some evidence on this soon. (In a consortium, University researchers are conducting RNA sequencing research into COVID; this will help identify which strand of COVID our students have caught and enable us to infer where they caught it.)

After about 10 October, though, any relationship between total City infections and student infections ends. So, even if the city-wide rise in infections was caused by students, it was soon brought under control. Why? We believe the answer is our own testing along with effective trace and support measures for isolating students. Of course, it remains possible that students continued to infect the wider population but, if so, it is mysterious how they managed to do this without infecting each other. 

One has to be very careful about drawing inferences from limited data but the graph shows that there is no evidence of students being an ongoing source of infection spread in Portsmouth. I suspect many other universities will be able to tell a similar story. 

Why does this matter?

As the leader of an academic institution I am bound to say that having evidence always matters but there are other important points. First, I want to congratulate my students who have clearly taken their responsibilities very seriously. The overwhelming majority of students are not the stereotypes of tabloid headlines. Perhaps we should see students as role models, not scapegoats. 

Second, while blaming others is a common human reaction, in assuming students are the problem, people can become blind to their own role in spreading the virus and avoid facing up to the responsibilities that rest with us all. A change of mindset here is urgent. Over the next few weeks, people across the country will enjoy a lockdown-free Christmas and New Year. Infection rates will rise considerably as a result. When they do rise, we should all keep this evidence in our minds and not blame students.

Students are hardly the only people who will be mixing with friends and family over Christmas. Nor are they the only people who will travel. London, for example, is usually far quieter and it cannot be only students who leave the capital. 

There are also broader implications. Our evidence shows the value of effective test and trace mechanisms as well as the availability of effective support to reduce the need for infected individuals to break their isolation. 

There are also insights for the Government here. By staggering the return of students to university, the Government’s spring term guidance aims to delay or reduce any post-Christmas spike in infections. However, we should not focus on the process of students’ return to the exclusion of what happens afterwards. Until a vaccine becomes available for everyone, regular testing and support for isolating students is probably a more effective way to reduce the spread of COVID than altering the days students move from A to B.

This, we should recognize, is good news. Working together at local and national level (as we have been), universities and the Government have far more powers to test, trace and support students at university than prevent them from travelling to and from university.

The final point is simple. It has been a hard year for students. The least we owe to them is for politicians, communities – indeed all of us – to be guided by the evidence when deciding how they are viewed and treated in one of the worst peace-time crises this country has ever experienced. 

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