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As COVID clusters mount, university dashboards provide incomplete and outdated information

Screengrab of UNC-Chapel Hill’s COVID dashboard
[Editor’s note: On Monday afternoon, UNC-Chapel Hill made its weekly update to the school’s COVID-19 dashboard [2].

There were 135 new positive tests — 130 among students and 5 among employees. 

The school’s positive test rate jumped to 13.6% and its quarantine room capacity fell to 5.5%.  The school will now move to online instruction [3].]

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is being rocked by a series of COVID-19 infection clusters  just one week after the start of classes [4]. Four such clusters — defined by the state Department of Health and Human Services as five or more infections in a related area — have been identified in student housing since Friday.

But no one looking at the school’s COVID-19 dashboard [2] Monday afternoon would know any of that.

When the school launched the dashboard it gave daily updates, just as the DHHS dashboard continues to do. But last month the university switched to weekly updates, saying it was concerned even anonymized, numbers-only reports about on-campus infections could compromise student privacy. That claim was challenged by faculty, students and government transparency advocates, but the school held to the decision as students returned to dorms and classrooms.

The result: Students, their families and the surrounding community can’t determine the precise number of infections on campus, even as the university issued several Alert Carolina updates [5] on infection clusters throughout the weekend. The school has also declined to provide numbers for the infections in each cluster.

The problem is hardly unique to Chapel Hill. Although more sparse and infrequently updated, the school’s dashboard is among the more comprehensive in the UNC system.

COVID-19 dashboards are not even operational at some of the system’s 17 campuses. Where they do exist, updates are not uniform and the detail given by each school varies wildly. Some of the schools’ infection numbers appear to only count those diagnoses through on-campus tests; others count students, faculty, staff and subcontractors on campus wherever they are tested.

NC State’s dashboard currently reports only four positive tests for the week of Aug 8-14 [6], fewer than are represented by any one of the four clusters at Chapel Hill. That data represents only “student patients in student health services” and “surveillance programs.” It does not break down the data by students, faculty, staff or subcontractors.

Appalachian State University’s dashboard does show a breakdown of “students” and “employees.” Its latest data, updated Monday, show 39 total cases — but those are “active cases,” not positive test results. How the much smaller Boone campus is showing dramatically more cases than NC State, which boasts the largest student population in the system, is a question not explained by the data presented.

At East Carolina University where police reported shutting down 20 parties the first weekend students returned [7], including one with 400 people — the dashboard has not been updated since the week of Aug. 8, two days before the start of classes.

The school reported 28 new student infections and two new employee infections [6] that week. Because those infected with COVID-19 may not present symptoms for up to 14 days, those numbers likely do not reflect the period in which most students returned to campus. Consequently, the data could be obsolete by the time they are next updated.

An in-depth, comprehensive system-wide dashboard with daily updates is possible. In fact, it’s already being constructed. But, according to the UNC System office, it will not be available to the public.

UNC System President Peter Hans

As Policy Watch reported earlier this month [9], UNC System President Peter Hans prepared a memo for chancellors detailing a dashboard that would be updated daily for “internal, informational purposes only.” It would be password protected and, according to the memo, chancellors would have to request access even for their leadership teams.

The memo, obtained by Policy Watch last week, was accompanied by a series of charts marked “confidential draft: not for distribution” which detail which metrics may be tracked. The data points described go well past any existing school’s dashboard with breakdowns of the categories of staff members infected, the number of antigen tests administered on campuses, testing lag and availability of tests.

Josh Ellis, UNC System associate vice president for media relations, sent Policy Watch a statement on the dashboard memo in response to questions about it.

“The UNC System issued a draft administrative memo to our campuses providing direction on data reporting to the System Office to assess relevant conditions at our institutions,” Ellis wrote. “The information being collected is public information and nothing in the memo suggests otherwise.”

The memo uses the words “for internal, informational purposes only” in describing the dashboard and says that it will be password protected, for use by chancellors and their leadership teams if they should be given permission.

“Our campuses have, or can choose to have, public facing dashboards with information that is most relevant to monitoring and assessing conditions at each of our institutions,” Ellis wrote.

The memo makes no reference to public dashboards at the university level. Nor does it address whether the information collected daily will be used — or will even be available for use — as part of any university’s public dashboard.

Dr. Mimi Chapman, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty

“Much of that data is also shared with county or local health departments and collected by the state,” Ellis wrote. ”The UNC System is committed to the safety of our students, faculty, and staff, and providing safe environments to learn, teach, work and live.”

Last month UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey told school chancellors that they would not have the authority to end on-campus housing and instruction at their schools as a response to COVID-19 infections. Instead, Ramsey said in an email obtained by Policy Watch [11], the board and UNC system president would make those decisions.

Over the weekend, Prof. Mimi Chapman, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, called on Ramsey and the system to grant that authority locally [12], allowing UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz to make the decision for his school.

“In the last two days, within the first week of classes, already three clusters of students that are positive for the virus have been identified,” Chapman wrote in her letter. “Two in dormitories and now one at a fraternity house. These are likely the tip of the iceberg and we will see more in coming days.”

“We knew there would be positive cases on our campus,” Chapman wrote. “But clusters, five or more people that are connected in one place, are a different story. The presence of clusters should be triggering reconsideration of residential, in-person learning. However, moving to remote instruction cannot be done without your approval.”

Chapman opposed a scenario in which Guskiewicz “does not have the authority to do what he believes, given the best advice he is being given.”

“This is an untenable situation in which to put our leadership and I ask that you change it right away,” Chapman wrote.

Shayna Hill, chair of the UNC Employee Forum, sent her own letter supporting Chapman’s on Monday.

“It was stunning to learn that after only one week of classes there are already four COVID-19 clusters in our UNC campus community,” Hill wrote. “And this should be an immediate call to action to allow our Chancellor to do what he must to keep our community safe.”

Guskiewicz has publicly defended UNC-Chapel Hill’s return plan as safe and cautious in interviews and faculty forums. He has not yet made any public statement indicating that he would end in-person instruction and on-campus living if he was given the authority.

Policy Watch reached out to the UNC System office Friday for comment from Hans or Ramsey and to ask whether the clusters would lead to a reconsideration of in-person instruction and on-campus housing. Policy Watch was told to direct questions to UNC Chapel Hill.

Repeated requests for comment or any statement on the situation continued to go unanswered Monday.

The UNC-Chapel Hill dashboard was updated Monday, August 17th.