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Many College Students Head Home Lacking Covid-19 Tests

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 5 days ago Douglas Belkin
a young girl in a parking lot © Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Hundreds of thousands of college students are poised to leave campuses next week and travel home without taking a Covid-19 test, creating a significant health risk in their hometowns.

Less than one-third of schools have mandated testing, said Chris Marsicano, an educational-studies professor at Davidson College and founding director of the College Crisis Initiative, an effort to track the responses to the pandemic by colleges and universities around the country. Some schools are asking students to spend the holiday on campus, while others are moving all classes online after Thanksgiving break.

“Any institution that is not doing exit testing right now has the potential to be a time bomb,” Dr. Marsicano said. “They are likely contributing to an incredible increase across the country.”

When students moved to campus in the fall, there was an uptick in the U.S. of around 3,200 cases a day, according to research by Dr. Marsicano and colleagues.

He expects a similar increase as students leave for Thanksgiving break—only this time the spread wouldn’t be focused on colleges but on hometowns.

People in their teens and 20s are among the most likely to carry the virus and not know it unless they are tested, because many young people who are infected are asymptomatic. “This is a big issue,” said Sen Pei, an infectious-disease modeler and associate research scientist at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “Young people have been the drivers of transmission in the U.S.”

Hundreds of schools have mandated tests for students heading home and are offering them—free of charge. But most schools are only recommending tests, according to Dr. Marsicano. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans not to travel for Thanksgiving. 

An official said the agency is alarmed by the exponential growth in Covid-19 cases, as well as rising hospitalizations and deaths. The CDC isn’t a regulatory agency and doesn’t have the power to impose a no-travel mandate.

About 50 million Americans are expected to travel in the coming days. Thanksgiving is traditionally the busiest travel period of the year. The nation is currently enduring a surge in coronavirus cases. More than 250,000 Americans have died since the pandemic began.

Of all the travelers commuting during the holiday, officials have pointed to college students as a major potential problem.

The governors of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Massachusetts are urging all colleges to make testing available to all residential students before they leave for Thanksgiving break.

“Testing should apply to all students whether they live on or off campus,” Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said Wednesday. He asked colleges to ensure that every student leaving for the holiday get a Covid-19 test administered by the school and a negative result within 72 hours of departure.

Boston University and the University of Notre Dame are mandating testing for students who leave for the break. At Notre Dame, students who aren’t tested on the way out won’t be able to register for classes next semester. Boston University is encouraging students to stay at the school over the holiday.

But hundreds of other schools are only recommending a Covid-19 test before students leave for the holiday. This policy will mostly attract students with symptoms and “the walking worried,” said David Paltiel, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health.

Dr. Paltiel fears students who are asymptomatic and feel fine won’t be tested and will spread the virus when they return home.

Schools that are doing symptom checks instead of testing “make for good theater but nothing else,” he said.

At the University of Michigan, which experienced outbreaks and a stay-in- place order last month, only undergraduates who live on campus are mandated to get tested, but there is no enforcement mechanism. Students who live off campus are encouraged to be tested. Tests were available through Nov. 20, and as of Wednesday a bit over half had been tested, said Preeti Malani, the chief health officer at the University of Michigan and a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases.

Dr. Malani said it wasn’t logistically feasible to test every student because the school wasn’t sure who was still in the area, who is traveling and who has already had Covid-19.

“Everything about life is risky right now,” she said. “It’s all about trying to mitigate the risk and give people good information to make good decisions.”

At the University of Kentucky, students are strongly encouraged to be tested, but there is no mandate. The school tested about 24,000 students, including anyone who came onto the campus, but doesn’t expect to test that many students who are leaving.

“I would be very happy if we are in the 60 to 70 percent range,” said Lance Poston, co-project director of UK Health Corps.

In New Jersey, Marjorie Heyman is anxiously waiting for her son, a junior at the University of Michigan, and her daughter, who just graduated from the school. They will be driving home together for the holiday.

Both have tested negative, but she said she is concerned that the tests might not be reliable. She plans to greet them at the door with a hug—with all of them wearing masks. She said she sympathizes with the university’s predicament in trying to manage a school in the middle of a pandemic but wishes it had enforced stricter protocols.

“I think from the beginning they should have had mandatory testing,” she said. “Then maybe they could have had more in-person classes. But who knows? This whole thing is such a crapshoot.”

Write to Douglas Belkin at doug.belkin@wsj.com

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