NC Colleges Aren't Providing Key COVID Data To The Public

Aug 20, 2020

Oyeronke Popoola, a 17-year-old freshman from Raleigh, carries some of her belongings as she and other students leave campus following a cluster of COVID-19 cases at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.
Credit Gerry Broome / AP

As North Carolina college students return to campuses to resume in-person classes, universities are providing infrequent coronavirus updates with wildly different levels of transparency.

Meanwhile, two schools in the University of North Carolina System reported new COVID-19 clusters.

During a Wednesday news conference, the state's top public health official, Mandy Cohen, said her Department of Health and Human Services has worked with campuses to get sufficient coronavirus data but may not be able to access information about COVID-19 clusters.

“There are certain things that we at the department have requirements about by law that folks must report to us in terms of cases,” Cohen said. “That is the case for K-12 schools. They are required when they have a cluster to report to us. That’s not the case at universities and colleges.”

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper encouraged universities to disclose more information to help college families, people in surrounding campus communities and state health officials get a better understanding of the health conditions of each of the state's 16 public colleges and universities in the UNC system.

“I do understand the stress that students are feeling, that parents are feeling," Cooper said. "I think that’s why it’s so important that we all look out for each other. I think it’s important for us, too, to know the data at each of these universities so that everybody can keep up with it."

Calls for more COVID data come as more students return to college this week and newly reopened campuses see a rise in coronavirus cases.

N.C. State University said Wednesday that two new clusters were found at the Alpha Delta Pi and Kappa Delta sorority houses, according to a university news release. The Alpha Delta Pi house currently has seven positive cases and the Kappa Delta house has six positive cases.

On Tuesday, N.C. State reported a cluster connected to an off-campus house that hosted a party earlier this month.

Officials at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said Wednesday they have identified two more COVID-19 clusters, one at Morrison residence hall on the school’s south campus, and at Zeta Psi fraternity house just off campus. The alert didn’t say exactly how many cases there were.

Duke University, a private school that operates outside the UNC system, announced on Tuesday that 11 students got the coronavirus as of Aug. 14 out of the 5,765 tests that have been administered to those who have returned to campus since Aug. 2.

UNC-Chapel Hill announced Monday that it would halt in-person instruction starting on Wednesday after it saw a rapid increase in tests coming back positive, up from 2.8% to 13.6% at Campus Health since classes started. In four areas of campus, five or more students tested positive for the virus after being in close proximity with their peers, according to UNC. During the first week of classes, 130 students got the coronavirus.

UNC's dashboard provides weekly updates with substantial details about the number of COVID cases among students and staff members, occupancy rates in campus housing, total testing capacity, percentage of tests coming back positive and a breakdown of the number of students with online-only classes and a mix of online and in-person instruction.

North Carolina State University, which reported its first cluster of cases on Tuesday, provides the public with the number of tests it performs and the proportion of cases that come back positive, sorted by students and faculty. East Carolina University has come under fire after about 400 students gathered at a party. ECU has seen 61 positive cases in the past two weeks, according to its website.

The nation's largest historically black college and university, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, began fall classes Wednesday. In a virtual news conference, NC A&T chancellor Harold Martin Sr. highlighted the university's dashboard of confirmed cases, which provides minimal information that only includes the number of COVID-19 cases for both students and employees.

NC A&T sends additional information to the UNC System but limits what is visible for the public.

“We wanted to keep it as simple as possible while giving people an actionable dataset,” said Todd Simmons, a university spokesman.

The University of North Carolina at Greensboro provides even less information on its website by bundling COVID cases into a single number that merges positive results for students, faculty and staff.

Cohen said she's spoken with many college chancellors about their reopening plans and wants them all to provide as much information to the public as they can.

“We do not have a legal requirement for them to report to us," Cohen said. "I would ask them to be as transparent as possible because I think it’s important for us to all know what is happening.”