'Terribly concerned': Why college students coming home for holidays could bring spike in COVID-19 cases

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Thousands of Bay Area college students will return home next month for Thanksgiving break, potentially carrying with them COVID-19, but only a small percentage of colleges and universities are conducting mandatory coronavirus testing.

University of Michigan Freshman Abby Young traveled more than 2,000 miles across the country from Walnut Creek to begin her college career which looks nothing like what she imagined.

"It's going well it's definitely different being on zoom and I'm spending a lot more time in the dorm than I normally would be," said Young.

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She's not alone, thousands of Bay Area residents left home to attend college, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and most of them will return to the Bay Area next month for Thanksgiving break.

"What you don't want to see is students moving across the country bringing either bringing COVID-19 with them to campus or leaving campus with it," said Chris Marsicano, Assistant Professor of the Practice in Educational Studies at Davidson College in North Carolina.

Marsicano is also the Director of the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College. Marsicano along with a student run research lab created a data set of schools across the country to understand their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their coronavirus testing data focused on four year institutions.

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Out of 1,444 4-year colleges and universities examined, only 7% are testing the entire student population at least weekly for COVID-19. 30% have no clear testing plan as of several weeks ago when the research lab collected the data.

"We are sort of terribly concerned is the best way to say it," said Marsicano.

Terribly concerned because Marsicano says a substantial portion of college-aged individuals who contract COVID-19 are asymptomatic.

"So it's extraordinarily important to test everybody and to do so as much as possible so you catch those asymptomatic people before they are able to spread the disease," said Marsicano.

Young tells ABC7 News there is no mandatory testing at the University of Michigan.

"I got tested at home before coming out to campus. I have not been tested since," said Young.

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In an emailed statement to the I-TEAM, a Universitiy of Michigan spokesperson writes while testing is not mandatory it is widely available.

"U-M is offering COVID testing to all students, faculty and staff who are working or learning on the Ann Arbor campus. We have continued to make more testing available and make it more convenient for students on campus. While the testing is not mandatory it is widely available. We have capacity for up to 6,000 tests a week through our on-campus surveillance testing program. We also offer testing at the on-campus health center. We also will be rolling out additional testing for all students before they leave for the Thanksgiving break."

The spokesperson says testing before Thanksgiving will be mandatory for students living on campus.

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Not all Bay Area residents who left home for college are living on campus.

Grace Corrigan, also from Walnut Creek, is a Freshman at UC Santa Barbara living in an off-campus apartment.

"There isn't any kind of mandatory testing. Everyone is very much encouraged to get tested if they're experiencing any of the symptoms," said Corrigan.

A UC Santa Barbara spokesperson tells the I-TEAM, "The campus has mandatory testing for the approximately 2,000 students who either live in campus housing or come to campus for some kind of instruction or work.

In addition, any UC Santa Barbara student who has symptoms or has been in close contact with a positive COVID-19 case can come to our student health center for a COVID-19 test at no charge.

"While we cannot mandate testing for students who are not living in campus housing or coming to campus for instruction or work, we have been working closely with the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, which is using campus-owned facilities near campus to provide free testing for students and community members. In addition, we encourage all students who live near campus to come in this week for testing at the campus's testing facilities."

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Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly says, "It is absolutely a concern."

Ghaly says it's possible college students traveling home who are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic could infect somebody else.

"We have many, many cases where that story that you mention occurs," Ghaly told the ABC7 News I-TEAM during a recent press conference.

"Our initial shock and concern was offset by the realization that institutions just don't have the resources to test everybody every week, once a week," said Marsicano.

San Francisco native Jack Isacke is a Junior at Emerson College, a small liberal arts school in Boston that is conducting mandatory weekly testing.

"I came in thinking it was going to be a big hassle and at the end of the day you kind of feel better knowing that you're getting tested every week, you get a negative result every week and you feel like you're not putting anyone at risk. you're not at risk yourself which is really good," said Isacke.

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An Emerson spokesperson tells ABC7 News in an emailed statement:

"The College continues to operate this semester according to its One Emerson Flex Learning model, providing for face-to-face and remote learning, with the health and safety of its community at the forefront and extensive measures in place to minimize the impact of COVID-19 to those on campus. This includes participating in the Safe for School Testing Program, alongside a number of other independent colleges and universities. All Emerson students are required to conduct a weekly self-swab test through the end of the semester as well as daily symptom checking. By following these and other safety measures, which have resulted in a low infection incidence rate throughout the fall semester, Emerson has been able to continue its learning plan without interruption."

Mandatory or not, the college students ABC7 News spoke with all said they planned to get a COVID-19 test before returning home.

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