Analyzing ASU's COVID-19 trends throughout the fall semester

Health experts say ASU handled coronavirus within its community well despite spikes at the beginning and end of the semester

ASU’s fall semester began and ended with the same trend: a spike in COVID-19 cases within its community.

Despite the University’s social distancing and face-covering guidelines, public health campaign, free saliva-based testing and more, over 3,000 cumulative students and employees have become infected with the coronavirus since Aug. 1.

Health experts within ASU and outside of it, along with University officials, said ASU was able to manage the spread of COVID-19 within its community, pointing toward the lower infection rates the campuses saw when compared to the surrounding ZIP codes and Arizona itself.

“If state government was as diligent as the universities have been in terms of implementing thoughtful, evidence-based interventions, our state would be in a much better position than we are right now,” said Will Humble, the executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association.

READ MORE: Crow says despite imperfections, ASU managed COVID-19

Data collected by The State Press show the bulk of infections came from students living off-campus — where the University can't enforce its guidelines as easily. The University’s coronavirus updates highlight how the spread of infections aligned with students moving onto campus and engaging in high-risk activities and again after the Halloween weekend passed.

By Sept. 10, when ASU began to report the number of cumulative cases within its community since Aug. 1, just under 1,400 students had been infected, with the bulk of the infections coming after the semester began on Aug. 20. 

Yet, active cases dropped nearly as fast as they rose. Infections peaked on Sept. 3 with 983 total within the ASU community. A little over a month later on Oct. 5, active cases decreased by over 800. Until early November, active cases would range from 80 to 140 each update.

Megan Jehn, a professor of epidemiology at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change who also leads the University’s public health response team, said ASU was able “to slow transmission in the dorms and really get ahead of things with aggressive testing” and with thorough case investigations and contact tracing after seeing the community’s initial surge.

While active cases were low within the ASU community after September, the state and the nation began to see a new spike in infections in mid-October, the beginning of the worst of three surges over the year.

In an interview on Oct. 19, Neal Woodbury, interim executive vice president of ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise who helps lead the University’s COVID-19 response, said the surrounding surge was not within the ASU community at the time  — “but of course it will be.” 

Woodbury was right. ASU saw the beginning of its next surge days after Halloween, reporting over 80 new active cases within five days following the holiday and 50 new active cases in one update for the first time since September.

Katie Paquet, a University spokesperson, wrote in an email on Nov. 10 that officials were “not able to pinpoint a specific event" that led to the rise in cases within the community but said, “the spread is not the result of classroom or workplace activity, rather it is stemming from interactions outside of those settings." 

Active cases within the ASU community ranged between 300-450 from mid-November until the end of the semester when it reported 337 active cases and 3,357 cumulative COVID-19 cases since Aug. 1

READ MORE: ASU ends fall semester with 3,357 cumulative COVID-19 cases

Since Aug. 1, ASU has tested 177,107 students and faculty. The University ended the semester with a percent positivity rate of about 2.2% using the cumulative number of positive results as the numerator and the total number of tests collected as the denominator. The percent positivity rate represents the level of transmission of the virus and shows if the testing is effective.

What ASU may look like in spring as trends worsen in the state

The ASU community is, of course, not isolated from its surrounding areas. 

On Aug. 24, The State Press began tracking Arizona Department of Health Services COVID-19 ZIP code data of ZIP codes with ASU campuses, along with an additional Tempe ZIP code: 85281, 85004, 85306, 85212 and 85282. The data show that combined cumulative cases grew by over 5,500 throughout the semester.

In the 85281 ZIP code, where ASU’s main Tempe campus is located, cases rose by over 2,400 over the course of the semester.

On Thursday, ADHS reported 7,718 new cases and 146 new deaths. Modeling from Jehn and other ASU researchers shows cases will likely peak in Arizona in the coming weeks and hospitals will soon run out of beds, trends that aren't exclusive to Arizona but are applicable to the country.

Going into the spring semester, University administrators plan to conduct the semester in a similar manner as the fall with students having the option to attend classes in-person and through Zoom.

But if the virus permits it, the University would ideally have more in-person options for students. At the time of publication, no exact final decisions have been made on what the spring semester will look like.

However, no matter the University's wishes, the semester would likely begin at the pandemic's peak in Arizona and still without a clear end in sight. Jehn said her team is currently seeing people test positive for COVID-19 without having any close contacts with any infectious people.

“Any extended amount of time indoors is really dangerous, and so I think there's going to be sort of an even bigger push for virtual learning and having outdoor classes,” she said, along with “enhanced mask-wearing at least for the near future.”

Humble and Jehn both said the second half of the semester could see more in-person opportunities due to, potentially, the successful rollout of multiple effective vaccines over the coming months. 

Students will likely not receive the vaccine during that time, but if people who are high-risk for complications from COVID-19 and frontline workers receive it, transmission rates could decrease, lowering community spread and enabling the University to begin increasing in-person class sizes and events.


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

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