Mon. May 16th, 2022

Active COVID cases on campus, according to the WCU COVID Dashboard.

The WCU COVID-19 Dashboard is exactly what it sounds like: a web page updated daily by the university that tracks any COVID-19 data that pertains to the students’ vaccination rates, testing rates and, most importantly, case numbers. 

A quick glance at the dashboard’s current data would likely leave students feeling optimistic. As of Nov. 18, vaccination rates are pushing 66%, 4% better than the state average. Testing is returning daily positivity rates of anywhere from 0 to 4% at most, and a campus of 17,609 students has only around 20 active COVID cases with students in isolation at one time. What pandemic? WCU seems to be more golden than usual.

At face value, it really seems like West Chester has this under control, as a campus of enterprising young minds truly took it upon themselves to bring normalcy back. However, the more critically you look at the scenario, the less optimistic you might become.

For example, the testing that WCU’s COVID dashboard refers to is a combination of two sets of numbers. One, students who come into the free rapid testing center in the Emilie K. Asplundh Hall and volunteer to get tested for whatever reason, and two, the university’s random testing cycle. Any student who has not submitted a vaccination card to the campus is liable to be chosen for random testing. They then have a week to get a rapid test. On-campus students who do not comply with this “will be temporarily removed from on-campus housing.” Meanwhile, off-campus students are “strongly encouraged to test.” Essentially, the university has no way to make off-campus students get tested. The students who are entering from outside of the university bubble have no reason to comply, and there’s no way of knowing how many do.

Furthermore, the university only requires tests from on campus, unvaccinated students. The CDC projects that 17 of every 100 COVID cases come from vaccinated individuals. This means that there are 11,604 students who are vaccinated and possible infection carriers that the school will never test if they themselves don’t volunteer. And why would they? A study by Sah Pratha published by the National Academy of Sciences found the rate of asymptomatic COVID cases to be around 35%. This accounts for a massive chunk of the student body who could easily have and transmit COVID and never need to get tested.

Data from the WCU COVID Dashboard. “Students Tested Positive by Date” data and “Percent Positivity Rate” data often do not correspond with each other, or their correspondence is not explained.

In the past week, West Chester has averaged 139 tests a day. This number accounts for less than 0.8% of the student body on a given day and, as previously mentioned, might never account for vaccinated or off-campus students.

These numbers don’t even begin to touch on such factors as fake vaccine cards; the PEW research center estimates that the number of fake vaccination card vendors has skyrocketed to 10,000 since President Joe Biden unveiled his newest vaccine mandates. A Muhlenberg College survey in April found that 31% of Pennsylvanians never intend to receive the vaccine.

There may also be an incalculable number of students who get COVID and just never notify the school. Perhaps a student would just tell their teachers themselves and organize their own quarantine. Or worse, not quarantine at all. In fact, West Chester University does not explicitly tell its professors when a student has to go into quarantine for COVID, just that they will not be in class for 10 days due to health concerns. 

The Quad reached out to a sampling of professors in an attempt to synthesize its own COVID data. From the faculty who were able to provide both a number of COVID positive students as well as class size data, the Quad pulled a positivity rate of 4.87% for the semester. At a school with 17,609 students, 4.87% positivity rate means there have been about 857 COVID positive students since the semester began in the last week of August.

For West Chester, active COVID cases are defined as “students who have tested positive for COVID-19 and have not ended isolation” per the dashboard. The mandatory COVID isolation period is 10 days, and 83 days have passed since the first day of classes. This means that the number of COVID cases on campus should represent just under 1/8th of COVID cases for the entire semester. According to professor reporting, this means there should be just about 103 West Chester students who are currently reporting COVID. The WCU dashboard reports that there are only 15 students with COVID as of Nov. 18.

While data extrapolation can never be a perfect science, a degree of difference this big can not be ignored, and is an outcome of the universities extremely volunteer based research method. This is just one of several discrepancies on the dashboard. The WCU site also tracks positive COVID tests per day and converts this number into a daily percent positivity rate. However, the translation of this information seems vastly unclear. For example, the university reported seven positive tests on 131 students tested on Nov. 16. The dashboard then displays a 3.8% positivity rate for that day. Seven out of 131 is just over 5%, and although the dashboard qualifies this discrepancy to some degree, stating that self reported COVID cases that do not originate from on-campus testing appear in the positive test statistic but not in the percent positivity stat, the degree of those self reported cases is not displayed on a daily basis, giving students no way to gauge this discrepancy.

This doesn’t aim to accuse West Chester of intentionally under-reporting COVID cases. If WCU says that only 15 students have COVID, it’s because their reporting method could only identify 15 people with the virus. However, the degree to which the student body can trust this reporting method must be taken into consideration. There are more than enough reasons to be suspicious of the data reported this semester. 

Even professors who could not provide us with specific numbered student data were able to identify a consistent trend of lowered student attendance and a higher rate of students reporting ill health. One professor who requested anonymity even went so far as to voice suspicions of “students who have stopped self reporting to the university.”

“In the 25-person class I am teaching, I haven’t had any students report having COVID to me, though I have had a number of students who reported not feeling well over the course of the semester,” said Chairperson of the English Department Dr. Erin Hurt. 

A common issue for many professors this semester has been a drop in student attendance, especially as the cold and flu season begins to pick up. However, WCU’s website continues to advise faculty, staff and students to stay home if they are experiencing cold/flu symptoms, continue wearing their masks in academic buildings and in spaces where three feet of social distance is not possible, and to wash hands frequently. 

Matthew Shimkonis is a third-year History Major.

Nikki Haslett is a fifth-year English major with a minor in Journalism.

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