Part of a test result report for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 (Credit: Allison Bell/ALM)

Government COVID-19 tracking statistics seem to show that the United States suffered from a 35% increase in its usual death rate for about four weeks in the spring, and an increase of close to 20% for four weeks in July.

The hot new COVID-19 pandemic question is whether the start of the school year will lead to big new spikes in cases, hospitalizations, long-term disability, and death this fall.

Many colleges, universities and K-12 are keeping all or most activities virtual, for at least the first few weeks of the academic year.

News headlines suggest that some universities, including the University of Missouri at Columbia, have sky-high COVID-19 case counts: Boone County, the home to that school, recently reported that 60% of the people ages 18 to 22 who were tested for the virus that causes COVID-19 during the week ending Aug. 20 had COVID-19, and that positive cases among people in that age group accounted for about 60% of all of the positive results recorded in Boone County that week.

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But it could be that schools with especially high case counts are the ones getting most of the attention from reporters, and that schools with low infection rates are less likely to end up in new articles.

In theory, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) should have data that insurers and agents could use to track COVID-19, but the CDC’s new case activity map, which is based on the map the CDC uses to track influenza outbreaks, seems to have been broken since May. The map has shown very low levels of activity for most of the country all summer, even during weeks when COVID-19 was flooding hospitals in parts of Arizona, California and Texas with patients.

The Dynata Numbers

Dynata, a data and data analysis firm, offers an independent tracking window. The firm collects huge volumes of data on COVID-19- like symptoms by giving website visitors short surveys, then feeds the data into detailed public reports.

The narrowest collection of COVID-19-like illness symptoms presented consists of “dry cough and loss of taste or small.”

The percentage of Dynata survey participants ages 18 to 24 who said they had those symptoms was 3.3% for the two-week period ending Sept. 13, That’s the highest rate for any age group, and it’s up from 2.9% for the two-week period ending Aug. 16.

For Dynata survey takers of all ages, the COVID-19 symptom package rate was 1.2% for the two-week period ending Sept. 13, and 1% for the two-week period ending Aug. 16.

University COVID-19 Dashboards

Another way to get at the student COVID-19 rate question is to look at schools’ own COVID-19 testing data.

One problem with that approach is that schools’ test reporting is voluntary and not standardized.

We looked for dashboards for large schools, in different regions of the country, that provided the number of test results received on one day on or around Sept. 11, along with the number of positive results.

Many large universities are simply posting the number of positive cases, and not the number of tests conducted, or they are posting data for the surrounding city or county, not data for the university community.

The managers of the COVID-Tracking at The Atlantic say that the overall positivity rate for COVID-19 test results reported to the project Sept. 11 was 6.8%.

The positivity rates for Sept. 11 at the seven university dashboards included in the table below ranged from 0%, at Rice University in Houston, up to 16.3%, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The average for the seven university dashboards was 6.2%, and the median 7%.

The numbers suggest that, at this point, COVID-19 positivity rates at universities that post their results in a standardized format online may be similar to the national average, not noticeably higher than the national average.

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U.S. University COVID-19 Case Tracker
School Location Tests Positive % Positive
University of Arizona Tucson, Arizona             1,512              133 8.8%
University of California Berkeley Berkeley, California                451                11 2.4%
Rice University Houston                921                 - 0.0%
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Lincoln, Nebraska                294                48 16.3%
University of Wisconsin Madison, Wisconsin                948                71 7.5%
University of Miami Coral Gables, Florida                342                24 7.0%
State University of New York system Various             1,201                20 1.7%
National (The COVID Tracking Project) -        661,957        44,927 6.8%
* Self-reported data.
Data sources: University COVID-19 dashboard websites; The COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic 

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