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High COVID-19 transmission potential associated with re-opening universities can be mitigated with layered interventions

By Ellen Brooks-Pollock, Hannah Christensen, Adam Trickey, Gibran Hemani, Emily J Nixon, Amy C Thomas, Katy Turner, Adam Finn, Matt Hickman, Caroline L Relton, Leon Danon

Posted 11 Sep 2020
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.09.10.20189696

Background: Re-opening universities while controlling COVID-19 transmission poses unique challenges. UK universities typically host 20,000 to 40,000 undergraduate students, with the majority moving away from home to attend. In the absence of realistic mixing patterns, previous models suggest that outbreaks associated with universities re-opening are an eventuality. Methods: We developed a stochastic transmission model based on realistic mixing patterns between students. We evaluated alternative mitigation interventions for a representative university. Results: Our model predicts, for a set of plausible parameter values, that if asymptomatic cases are half as infectious as symptomatic cases then 5,760 (3,940 - 7,430) out of 28,000 students, 20% (14% - 26%), could be infected during the first term, with 950 (656 - 1,209) cases infectious on the last day of term. If asymptomatic cases are as infectious as symptomatic cases then three times as many cases could occur, with 94% (93% - 94%) of the student population getting infected during the first term. We predict that one third of infected students are likely to be in their first year, and first year students are the main drivers of transmission due to high numbers of contacts in communal residences. We find that reducing face-to-face teaching is likely to be the single most effective intervention, and this conclusion is robust to varying assumptions about asymptomatic transmission. Supplementing reduced face-to-face testing with COVID-secure interactions and reduced living circles could reduce the percentage of infected students by 75%. Mass testing of students would need to occur at least fortnightly, is not the most effective option considered, and comes at a cost of high numbers of students requiring self-isolation. When transmission is controlled in the student population, limiting imported infection from the community is important. Conclusions: Priority should be given to understanding the role of asymptomatic transmission in the spread of COVID-19. Irrespective of assumptions about asymptomatic transmission, our findings suggest that additional outbreak control measures should be considered for the university setting. These might include reduced face-to-face teaching, management of student mixing and enhanced testing. Onward transmission to family members at the end of term is likely without interventions.

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