How many coronavirus cases are there across California State University system? Nobody really knows

How many California State University students and employees have the coronavirus? On most of the 23 campuses, nobody really knows.

The CSU chancellor’s office in Long Beach allows each campus to decide whether to require virus testing for employees and students. Most do not.

Instead, nearly all rely on students to voluntarily report if they feel ill or test positive elsewhere. As a result, the official number of coronavirus cases tends to be low on campuses that don’t test, and higher where they do.

“It’s scary,” said Ben Davis, who teaches a daylong TV journalism class in person every Monday at Cal State Northridge in Los Angeles, where the coronavirus prevention rules are clear.

Before class, Davis uses the school’s coronavirus screening app to answer four familiar questions: Been near anyone with COVID-19? Runny nose? Fever? Cough? If he answers no, he’s clear to enter the campus, where he is an assistant professor of digital journalism. He and 12 students spend the day creating a TV news show. No more than eight can be in the studio at once — all 6 feet apart. And when the anchor reads the teleprompter unmasked, everyone else has to clear out. After that, the room stays empty for 72 hours.

The class is one of about 7% conducted in person across the CSU’s 23 campuses, all of which adhere to similar safety rules. But to Davis — and many others who think about college in the coronavirus era — those precautions don’t go far enough.

“I feel safe with what (Northridge) has done so far, but putting in the extra resources for testing would be more safe and prudent, I think,” said Davis, whose tennis partner, another professor, steers clear of the campus because of the uncertainty. For his part, Davis sprays a lot of Lysol and hopes his students won’t complain about the smell.

“Though I meet with just one class on campus, I think my class and I should be tested periodically,” he said. “I know the budget is tight, but I think budgets have to adjust to our new reality.”

Across the country, colleges have reported more than 130,000 coronavirus cases, according to the New York Times, which tracks the data. That includes more than 3,300 cases at 63 California campuses.

But a Chronicle analysis of the case numbers campuses reported to the chancellor’s office in Long Beach suggests that the official numbers understate the extent of the virus, particularly where students who live on campus or take in-person classes are not regularly tested.

Since the pandemic began, San Francisco State reports that seven people associated with the campus have tested positive. At Cal State East Bay, it’s 19. Sonoma State has 16 reports. At San Jose State, 53. And at Davis’ campus, Cal State Northridge, it’s 32.

By contrast, San Diego State has discovered 1,136 cases of the coronavirus — most after beginning a mandatory testing program last month in which every student living on campus or taking an in-person class would be tested for the virus every 14 days, for free. The close monitoring, known as surveillance testing, is considered the gold standard for group situations during the pandemic, especially when combined with contact tracing and preventive behavior.

“The problem with no testing is that you’re blind,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, a UC Berkeley infectious disease expert. “If people are using the campus and interacting with each other, then it’s terribly important that the university is not blind to what’s happening.”

Student Anchor Ryan Ketcham (left to right) goes over notes as Professor Ben Davis speaks to Student Video Coordinating Producer Bryce Wayne and Student Producer Emily Brubaker inside the newsroom before recording an episode of the Valley View News show in their television news class on campus at CSU Northridge in Northridge, California September 28, 2020. Due to the pandemic, students must wear masks (except the anchors when the show is recording), keep distances when possible, and wipe down their stations for safety.
Student Anchor Ryan Ketcham (left to right) goes over notes as Professor Ben Davis speaks to Student Video Coordinating Producer Bryce Wayne and Student Producer Emily Brubaker inside the newsroom before recording an episode of the Valley View News show in their television news class on campus at CSU Northridge in Northridge, California September 28, 2020. Due to the pandemic, students must wear masks (except the anchors when the show is recording), keep distances when possible, and wipe down their stations for safety.Kendrick Brinson / Special to The Chronicle

CSU officials tell campuses to follow the guidance of county public health departments, which typically don’t mandate surveillance testing for schools.

But in San Francisco, new guidance released on Sept. 30 requires colleges to develop a surveillance testing strategy for all indoor instruction and for students living on campus, and to collaborate with the Public Health Department.

At San Francisco State, about 570 students have some in-person instruction, and about 350 students live in campus housing. The campus asks that everyone who tests positive for the coronavirus fill out an online questionnaire, with name and contact information.

Seven people have complied since the pandemic began: three students, three employees and a vendor.

“I don’t believe for a moment that that’s it. I know there’s more,” said Eugene Chelberg, associate vice president for student affairs who handles COVID-19 safety in addition to his regular job.

The campus hasn’t set up surveillance testing in part because the logistics are daunting, Chelberg said. The health center offers only basic services, and there is no student insurance program. Also, the campus lost $22 million in state funding and is laying off staff. It would have to pay for a testing program itself.

But now the school is required to collaborate with the county on testing. So on Monday, during a regularly scheduled call with the health department, Chelberg asked: What does that mean?

Journalism Professor Ben Davis reaches for a script from anchor Amanda Alvarado in the television studio as they prepare to record an episode of the Valley View News show in their television news class on campus at CSU Northridge in Northridge, California September 28, 2020. Due to the pandemic, students must wear masks (except the anchors when the show is recording), keep distances when possible, and wipe down their stations for safety.
Journalism Professor Ben Davis reaches for a script from anchor Amanda Alvarado in the television studio as they prepare to record an episode of the Valley View News show in their television news class on campus at CSU Northridge in Northridge, California September 28, 2020. Due to the pandemic, students must wear masks (except the anchors when the show is recording), keep distances when possible, and wipe down their stations for safety.Kendrick Brinson / Special to The Chronicle

Even the county isn’t sure. But for James Martel, a professor of political theory and president of the faculty union, surveillance testing can’t happen soon enough.

“Testing is absolutely crucial to us,” he said. “I worry. A lot! I think it’s very dangerous. I think it’s a mistake” not to test.

Many employees at Cal State East Bay in Hayward agree. There, about 300 faculty and staff members are working on campus, and 325 students are living in student housing — each with their own bedroom.

“If they had someone testing people it would make people feel more comfortable. Feel safer,” said Diego Campos, a buyer and president of the employees union who is among many staff members who say they are irritated about being required to work on campus, though in staggered shifts.

But Abayomi Jones, executive director of student health services, said the campus has been issued no guidance about adding surveillance testing to its array of safety measures.

At Sonoma State, student Gabbi Cozzolino of Half Moon Bay received a message the other day alerting the campus that a library building was being shut down because of a COVID-19 case.

“I’m glad they notified us. But who knows who else has it out there that hasn’t confirmed it with the school?” Cozzolino said in an interview. “People will wonder, who else has it?”

Diego Campos, president of the campus Employees union and a staff buyer, stands for a portrait at California State University East Bay's campus in Hayward, Calif. on Thursday, September 17, 2020.
Diego Campos, president of the campus Employees union and a staff buyer, stands for a portrait at California State University East Bay’s campus in Hayward, Calif. on Thursday, September 17, 2020.Brittany Hosea-Small / Special to The Chronicle

That’s the question that has led at least two of the four CSU campuses with outbreaks to adopt surveillance testing.

“I do think a university should want to know what’s happening with their student body,” said Swartzberg, of UC Berkeley.

San Diego State did.

Cases were rocketing in early September, and the county health department reported 490 positive tests connected to the university.

The campus temporarily suspended in-person classes. Then they took $1 million from their federal CARES Act funding, and set aside another $3 million from state appropriations and student fees, to create a surveillance testing program.

By Sept. 14, cases were up 28% in just a week, reaching 627. Two days later, the campus began its testing program.

It didn’t mean that testing would end the students’ risky behavior. It meant the university could know who was getting sick, and when and where, and trace their contacts, all allowing in-person classes to resume with more confidence, said spokesman Cory Marshall.

Testing data show that as of Thursday, nine staff members, 13 visitors, and 1,114 students have tested positive at San Diego State.

The benefit of the program is that it “allows the university to make inferences about the level of spread of the virus in the student population,” says the campus website, which has pop-up testing reminders.

Student Anchor Ryan Ketcham (left) goes over notes as Professor Ben Davis (center) speaks to students, including student Video Coordinating Producer Bryce Wayne (right), inside the newsroom before recording an episode of the Valley View News show in their television news class on campus at CSU Northridge in Northridge, California September 28, 2020. Due to the pandemic, students must wear masks (except the anchors when the show is recording), keep distances when possible, and wipe down their stations for safety.
Student Anchor Ryan Ketcham (left) goes over notes as Professor Ben Davis (center) speaks to students, including student Video Coordinating Producer Bryce Wayne (right), inside the newsroom before recording an episode of the Valley View News show in their television news class on campus at CSU Northridge in Northridge, California September 28, 2020. Due to the pandemic, students must wear masks (except the anchors when the show is recording), keep distances when possible, and wipe down their stations for safety.Kendrick Brinson / Special to The Chronicle

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo imposed a similar program in late August, which captured a 78% increase during September, to 112 cases.

“The goal of ongoing testing of asymptomatic people is to identify those who are infected and their close contacts for isolation and quarantine, respectively, to mitigate the spread,” said spokesman Matt Lazier, noting that on-campus students will be tested at least five times this semester. The campus works with the county Public Health Department, which takes the lead on contact tracing. Lazier said students off campus — in Greek houses, for example — are invited to participate but can’t be obligated.

Joseph Castro, who in January will take over as chancellor of the CSU system of nearly half a million students, said in an interview that he is a proponent of coronavirus testing but hasn’t required it at Fresno State, where he is president. He said about 2,200 students take in-person classes there.

“Testing is very important. But it’s not the only piece of the puzzle,” Castro said, adding that he uses “inspiration” to encourage testing at Fresno State. So far, 25 people have reported testing positive.

Two other campuses have reported outbreaks: Chico State and Long Beach, which saw a 66% increase in cases since Sept. 8, to 128.

Long Beach did not immediately respond to questions about whether they have a testing program.

Journalism professor Ben Davis stands in the television studio as students prepare to record an episode of the Valley View News show in their television news class on campus at CSU Northridge in Northridge, California September 28, 2020. Due to the pandemic, students must wear masks (except the anchors when the show is recording), keep distances when possible, and wipe down their stations for safety.
Journalism professor Ben Davis stands in the television studio as students prepare to record an episode of the Valley View News show in their television news class on campus at CSU Northridge in Northridge, California September 28, 2020. Due to the pandemic, students must wear masks (except the anchors when the show is recording), keep distances when possible, and wipe down their stations for safety.Kendrick Brinson / Special to The Chronicle

At Chico State, Butte County officials detected a surge in late July, and reported 89 coronavirus cases among 18- to 24-year-olds near the campus. A month later, just as school was about to start on Aug. 24, cases more than tripled, to 314.

By contrast, the campus’ voluntary hotline attracted just 189 people reporting a positive test result during the entire pandemic.

Chico State had planned to offer 10% of classes in person. Based on the county data, campus officials moved them all online.

Yet campus officials are adamant that surveillance testing is not right for them.

“Everyone has a right to their opinion,” student health center Director Juanita Motley said of testing proponents. For Chico State, “testing is not the solution. We know that the virus is highly, highly contagious. As soon as you walk out the door, you could very well be positive already.”

The campus has coronavirus testing equipment but has been unable to get the chemicals needed to determine if the samples are positive or negative because they are prioritized for hospitals and public health departments, Motley said. So the county has agreed to process 50 campus tests a week, with up to 20% done on asymptomatic students.

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