The return of students to the University of Texas this fall has the potential to amplify coronavirus transmission in the broader Austin area, according to new projections published Friday by the university’s COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.
Researchers at the consortium considered 27 possible scenarios that could play out in the coming months, now that the university has reopened its campus for the fall semester. In each scenario, the number of cases on campus was shown to have a direct impact on the number of cases and hospitalizations in the larger Austin area.
“It shows us that none of us live in a bubble,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the modeling consortium. “If there are high levels of transmission among students, it likely will spill over into the Austin community, amplify transmission in Austin and potentially lead to greater numbers of hospitalizations — and vice versa. If there’s a lot of transmission happening in Austin, that will also pose an increased risk to the student community at UT.”
The projections showed possible outcomes based on different factors, including the number of students who return to campus, transmission rates between students and transmission rates within the Austin community.
The report, the second by the consortium examining the effects of UT reopening its campus, found that if there is “even a moderate level of transmission among students on or off campus,” it could amplify COVID-19 transmissions in the city.
“I want to emphasize that these are not forecasts, these are scenarios,” Meyers said. “We really don’t know what’s going to happen, and, really importantly with COVID in general, what’s going to happen as far as how quickly it’s going to be spreading among students and spreading within Austin absolutely depends on the decisions we make in our day-to-day behavior.”
675 student cases
Since classes started Aug. 26, the university has reported 675 cases among students and nine among faculty and staff. Those include tests administered on campus, self-reported cases in Austin and elsewhere, and tests performed at off-campus locations identified by Austin Public Health officials.
Austin has reported 28,904 cases since the start of the pandemic, more than 2,800 of which were reported since the start of the fall semester.
“If UT enacts and enforces strict control measures such as prohibiting large gatherings and providing rapid testing, contact tracing and isolation resources for all students, it can slow the spread of the virus among students and minimize spillover into the surrounding community,” the report reads.
The university has banned parties on and off campus for the fall semester and students are expected to follow city and state policies, including limits on the size of in-person gatherings and physical distancing requirements.
Symptomatic students, faculty and staff can be tested for the coronavirus at various locations on campus, and the university also is proactively testing between 1,000 and 2,000 asymptomatic people within the university community each week.
“The last thing the university wants to see is widespread transmission from our community to the greater Austin community,” UT spokesman J.B. Bird said. “This study that Lauren Meyers has done will help us in our planning, as all of her previous studies have. We’re grateful for the perspective we’re seeing from our contact tracing, that there doesn’t seem to be widespread transmission, but that’s something we’re going to continue to pay very close attention to, because that’s the last thing we want to see.”
The university has seven-full time staffers and more than 100 volunteers working on contact tracing, tracking transmission of the virus and informing individuals that they might have come into contact with someone who has tested positive.
Participation in contact tracing is voluntary, and so far the university has been able to make contact in about 80% of cases. Austin Public Health officials are working with the university on both contact tracing and case investigations.
Darlene Bhavnani, a Dell Medical School epidemiologist who is leading UT’s contact tracing effort, said her team has identified few opportunities for virus transmission between students at the university and other residents in Austin.
“A very, very small proportion — maybe 2% of all the relationships we’ve captured with age available — show interaction across different age brackets,” she said. “Even among those relationships, I’m seeing low evidence of transmission, so none of those contacts have yet to turn into cases.
“So there’s no evidence of transmission and very limited evidence of contact outside of one’s college age group,” she said, noting that this could change.
Meyers warned that it can take time to see the “consequences of transmission” play out in hospitalization and fatality data, which could create a false sense of security.
“The moment we see increased transmission, you have to assume that three or four weeks down the road, that may have much more dire consequences,” she said.