University says publishing campus-wide COVID-19 data is not ‘useful information’

ASU will not publish its own COVID-19 tracking data, so students and faculty must rely on the state’s zip code and county data

University officials are not planning to publish or publicly announce data referring to the number of students, faculty and staff who test positive for the coronavirus.

"Knowing how many cases may be present in our community at one time does not give members of our community useful information about whether they particularly may need to take extra precautions," a University spokesperson said.

Instead, students will have to look to data provided by the Arizona Department of Health Services by zip code and county to track possible COVID-19 positives on their respective campuses as they return for another semester, the official said.

Rather than putting together a dashboard, the school's focus is on assisting students and employees with individual situations and taking as many steps necessary to continue providing a healthy learning and working environment in accordance with public safety guidelines, the spokesperson said.

Using a combination of contact tracing interviews and card swipe logs, officials are preparing to notify people of potential exposure to the virus. 

"Because we recognize that the virus is present in Arizona, we are taking numerous steps to reduce the risks that, if a member of our community contracts the virus, they will spread it to others," the spokesperson said.

Peter Smith, a junior studying finance, said he is returning to campus for classes but living in an apartment nearby.

"On an individual basis, it can help inform me how severe the situation on campus is," Smith said. "Having this data would be a level of transparency that I haven't seen from ASU."

Smith runs an on-campus club, the Trading Card Game Club, which he said can translate to several digital formats, but in-person meetings foster a sense of community. Having a dashboard and readily available data would "help us make more informed decisions so that we can protect the safety of our members," Smith said. He added that regardless of what the numbers were, he and his club would still follow guidelines. 

The statement from the University included links to a page detailing the plans to return to campus and reiterated that anyone within the ASU community has a "responsibility to follow all public health guidelines at work, class and at home to minimize risk for themselves and to help prevent the spread." 

The spokesperson also said many members of the ASU community do not live on-campus and some will be studying and working remotely from other states.

"Regardless of where the individual lives, the health care protocol is the same for anyone who has tested positive," the spokesperson said, adding that the University already works with local health officials to communicate on-campus positives for state data collection.

Will Humble, former director of the Arizona Department of Health Services and now executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, said the state and ASU's Biodesign Institute have valuable data sets available

"The value of data transparency is that it can give policy makers and the public, to some extent, actionable information with which to make policy and/or individual lifestyle decisions," Humble wrote in an email to The State Press.

A recent story from The New York Times revealed at least 6,600 positive cases of the new coronavirus can be tied to 270 colleges. According to the story, there is no standardized way colleges and universities tracked cases at the schools that responded.

"Of nearly 1,000 institutions contacted by The Times, some had already posted case information online, some provided full or partials numbers and others refused to answer basic questions, citing privacy concerns," the story said.

The University of Texas at Austin was at the top of the list, with 449 confirmed cases. On Twitter, the university fired back at the story and said it was not an accurate comparison of university cases because so few schools track and report data. 

"UT Austin diligently tracks and transparently reports COVID-19 cases on a public dashboard," a tweet said. "Regardless of how other universities approach the numbers, we will continue to do what's best for public health, tracking and sharing comprehensive information."

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with an undergraduate student population of a little over 19,000, updates a dashboard with hospital and quarantine capacity, availability of testing and links to external factors related to the state's data.

"This dashboard will serve as a source of information for us to remain updated on COVID-19 data related to our campus," wrote Bob Blouin, executive vice chancellor and provost, in a statement to students. "The dashboard will help inform our decision-making related to campus operations and possible off-ramps in consultation with the UNC System and local health officials."



Reach the reporter at pjhanse1@asu.edu and follow @piperjhansen on Twitter. 

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