AUSTIN (KXAN) — When classes for the fall semester begin at the University of Texas at Austin next week, between 82 and 183 students are expected to arrive infected and contagious with COVID-19, according to the university’s own COVID-19 model. In a report first released to KXAN, the modeling team projects that for any gathering of 10 students during the first week of classes, there is a 4.9% probability that at least one student will arrive at that gathering with COVID-19.
With students moving into UT’s on-campus housing this week and a mix of in-person and online classes starting for the university on Aug. 26, the university tasked its own researchers who have gained national renown for modeling the COVID-19 pandemic to make estimates for the Forty Acres.
The UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, led by Dr. Lauren Ancel Meyers, projects that students will arrive at the campus on the first day of classes already infected with the novel coronavirus. By the first week of classes, the modeling team expects that the prevalence of COVID-19 among the UT campus community will be higher than the prevalence of COVID-19 in the surrounding Austin-Round Rock Metropolitan Statistical Area.
The caveat to these numbers, Meyers explained, is that these numbers assume “worst-case scenario.” If students complete the fourteen-day quarantine the university has asked of them prior to the start of classes, the risk of students infecting others could be much lower.
Meyers works on UT’s COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, a team of researchers with pandemic modeling expertise that long precedes the coronavirus pandemic. The consortium has focused on modeling COVID-19 spread over the past few months with the aim of providing information to help policymakers come to more informed decisions. Reports they have produced about COVID-19 have been shared with local, state and federal leaders.
The modeling team notes that the risk of COVID-19 on the UT campus throughout the semester may be “considerably lower” if campus community members who test positive or show COVID-19 symptoms self-isolate and avoid in-person events.
UT Austin expects that 12,000 of its students are already in Austin and that an additional 10,000 will return to Austin by Aug. 26 when classes start. With a university student body of more than 50,000 students, this means the university is assuming more than half of its enrolled students will stay in their home regions during the fall semester.
Meyers explained that there are several factors playing into COVID-19 risk at the UT Austin campus: the ongoing community spread of COVID-19 in Austin where faculty, staff and some students live, as well as the varied spread of the virus in the different cities, states and countries students may be traveling to Austin from.
Many students are coming from other parts of Texas and another recent report from Meyers’ team pointed out that there is considerable variation in COVID-19 transmission in different parts of Texas. The risk of the resurgence of the virus in Texas is still present if the public does not continue taking protective measures, Meyers said.
Based on the estimates of mid-August COVID-19 prevalence in the home counties of UT students, the UT modeling team expects around 0.5% of those 22,000 returning students to have COVID-19.
For comparison, the estimated prevalence of COVID-19 in the Austin MSA on Aug. 13 was 0.33%.
The modeling team’s report about UT suggests the prevalence of COVID-19 among the UT community means a certain level of immediate risk for spread at in-person gatherings of students.
Their projections indicate that for gatherings of 10 students, there is a 4.9% chance at least one student will arrive with COVID-19 and for gatherings of one hundred students, there is a 39.4% probability that at least one student will arrive with COVID-19.
Extrapolating that further, the modeling team says for a gathering of 1,000 students an estimated five students would arrive with COVID-19, and for a gathering of 10,000 students an estimated 50 students would arrive with COVID-19.
UT Austin is planning to hold Longhorn Football games at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium starting in September with 25% capacity, meaning around 25,000 spectators in attendance.
Meyers explained that the risk of spread between students at these gatherings would depend on the nature of their interactions and whether any protective measures (such as mask wearing and social distancing) were taken.
The modeling team projects that between 82 and 183 students may arrive infected with COVID-19 and contagious during the first week of classes at UT. However, if all UT students were tested during that week, the researchers expect between 156 and 341 students would test positive, including some students who may still be shedding the virus but are no longer acutely infectious.
The risk of spread can quickly multiply without protective measures, the modelers explained, noting that if each student who tests positive has 10 or more traceable contacts, then thousands of students may require immediate COVID-19 testing.
But Meyers said there’s a great deal the modeling team doesn’t know about what happens next and how risk might spread beyond that first week. If every single person in the UT campus community wore face masks, kept distance, didn’t gather and stayed home if they had symptoms, Meyers said “transmission would slow quite a bit.”
“Whether it would completely go away or how long it would take is not certain,” Meyers said.
“It really is critically important that even though the virus is sort of this silent threat and you may feel like you’re young and healthy and you’re going to be fine, that really it is really beneficial to all of us to take the steps to wear face masks, to keep distance, to stay home if you don’t feel well, so that we can altogether help to slow transmission and get our community to a point where we can start to get back on campus and get back to the lives we want to live,” she continued.
How this report is affecting UT
Psychology and marketing professor Art Markman (who you may be familiar with from KUT’s “Two Guys on Your Head”) is leading UT’s academic working group for the fall semester and spoke with KXAN about this new report. Markman said his team has reviewed this report closely and has been working with Meyers weekly in helping to plan for a fall semester during the pandemic.
UT has no plans to halt all in-person instruction or to discourage students from moving onto campus, Markman said.
However, Markman said this report helped UT decide how much COVID-19 testing it needs to offer on-campus and revise its safety guidelines (it is possible a few more classes may move online, he notes).
“The other thing is, we are redoubling all of our efforts to engage with students to make sure that they exhibit good behavior. Just because a student is [COVID-19] positive doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily going to pass that on to somebody else, even if they’re not symptomatic and don’t realize that they’re sick at the time. If people maintain good social distancing, if people wear a mask, then that’s a good protective behavior,” he said.
This report from the modeling team, he reiterated, was something the university effectively commissioned to better prepare for the potential risks for spreading the virus among the campus community this fall.
Markman explained that UT has put together its own testing facility which will begin testing students who live in dorms or live off campus on Friday. Additionally, he said, the university plans to use contact tracing to help track the spread on campus and determine who should be isolating.
“We are in a pandemic. We knew coming into the year that there were going to be a certain number of students who were going to be sick and that’s why we put together the testing capacity and our ability to trace and isolate,” Markman said.
The university’s campaign to keep campus safe during COVID-19 is called “Protect Texas.”
Markman, speaking from his psychology background, said this “Protect Texas” slogan builds on the notion that “there are things we won’t do for ourselves that we might do for others and for the sake of the community. ”
“So I think really making sure that everyone is keeping community responsibilities at the top of their minds is critical, so I think the way that we talk about this is important,” Markman added.
As KXAN reported earlier this week, there will be student conduct penalties (ranging up to suspension from campus depending on the incident) for those who violate the university’s COVID-19 rules such as the requirement to wear face coverings while in most indoor settings.
While Markman acknowledged the university has consequences in place for campus community members who violate the rules, he believes that a collective commitment to protecting the community will go father in enforcing good behavior.
“If we think back to our childhoods, we may have taken an extra cookie or whatever it was under threat of punishment alone,” Markman said. “I think that when we are our best selves it’s generally because A) we believe other people are watching and B) because we believe the behavior we’re supposed to perform is something that really matters.”
“Will 100% of our students behave? No,” he admitted.
“But if the large majority of our students recognize the importance of what we’re trying to do, then that will at least enable us to be within numbers where our ability to test and trace and isolate will allow us to capture those individuals that do get sick and really maintain a safe environment,” Markman continued.
He also believes the university needs to give its students a chance to demonstrate their maturity. He thinks college students often “get a bad rap.”
“18- to 22-year-olds certainly do a fair number of things that they’re later not proud of. I venture to say that many people at other ages could say the same thing about themselves,” Markman continued. “I have found time and again that college students have been able to step up and do wonderful things when they need to and so this is a situation in which they need to. We need everyone to engage in their very best behavior in order to have the educational experience that we all want to have.”
As for Dr. Ancel Meyers, the classes she is teaching this fall can be taught online, so she and her students are opting to learn via Zoom this semester.
How does she feel, as a UT employee, about the COVID-19 precautions her university has laid out so far?
“I think the university has taken really thoughtful precautions in making activities on campus incredibly safe,” Meyers said.
What will determine whether things stay safe, she added, will be the extent to which the UT community follows the rules and COVID-19 precautions.
“If everybody behaves and follows the guidelines and adopts a culture of caution, then we could be in a very good situation in a few weeks where we really have managed to keep COVID 19 sort of at bay,” she said. “But if, you know, students come back and they’re not following the guidelines on or off-campus, then we could actually see these introductions spark outbreaks that lead to larger numbers of cases.”