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Assessment of SARS-CoV-2 Screening Strategies to Permit the Safe Reopening of College Campuses in the United States

Educational Objective
To understand the different COVID-19 Screening Strategies used to assess whether colleges can be safely reopened this year.
1 Credit CME
Key Points

Question  What screening and isolation programs for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) will keep students at US residential colleges safe and permit the reopening of campuses?

Findings  This analytic modeling study of a hypothetical cohort of 4990 college-age students without SARS-CoV-2 infection and 10 students with undetected asymptomatic cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection suggested that frequent screening (every 2 days) of all students with a low-sensitivity, high-specificity test might be required to control outbreaks with manageable isolation dormitory utilization at a justifiable cost.

Meaning  In this modeling study, symptom-based screening alone was not sufficient to contain an outbreak, and the safe reopening of campuses in fall 2020 may require screening every 2 days, uncompromising vigilance, and continuous attention to good prevention practices.

Abstract

Importance  The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic poses an existential threat to many US residential colleges; either they open their doors to students in September or they risk serious financial consequences.

Objective  To define severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) screening performance standards that would permit the safe return of students to US residential college campuses for the fall 2020 semester.

Design, Setting, and Participants  This analytic modeling study included a hypothetical cohort of 4990 students without SARS-CoV-2 infection and 10 with undetected, asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection at the start of the semester. The decision and cost-effectiveness analyses were linked to a compartmental epidemic model to evaluate symptom-based screening and tests of varying frequency (ie, every 1, 2, 3, and 7 days), sensitivity (ie, 70%-99%), specificity (ie, 98%-99.7%), and cost (ie, $10/test-$50/test). Reproductive numbers (Rt) were 1.5, 2.5, and 3.5, defining 3 epidemic scenarios, with additional infections imported via exogenous shocks. The model assumed a symptomatic case fatality risk of 0.05% and a 30% probability that infection would eventually lead to observable COVID-19–defining symptoms in the cohort. Model projections were for an 80-day, abbreviated fall 2020 semester. This study adhered to US government guidance for parameterization data.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Cumulative tests, infections, and costs; daily isolation dormitory census; incremental cost-effectiveness; and budget impact.

Results  At the start of the semester, the hypothetical cohort of 5000 students included 4990 (99.8%) with no SARS-CoV-2 infection and 10 (0.2%) with SARS-CoV-2 infection. Assuming an Rt of 2.5 and daily screening with 70% sensitivity, a test with 98% specificity yielded 162 cumulative student infections and a mean isolation dormitory daily census of 116, with 21 students (18%) with true-positive results. Screening every 2 days resulted in 243 cumulative infections and a mean daily isolation census of 76, with 28 students (37%) with true-positive results. Screening every 7 days resulted in 1840 cumulative infections and a mean daily isolation census of 121 students, with 108 students (90%) with true-positive results. Across all scenarios, test frequency was more strongly associated with cumulative infection than test sensitivity. This model did not identify symptom-based screening alone as sufficient to contain an outbreak under any of the scenarios we considered. Cost-effectiveness analysis selected screening with a test with 70% sensitivity every 2, 1, or 7 days as the preferred strategy for an Rt of 2.5, 3.5, or 1.5, respectively, implying screening costs of $470, $910, or $120, respectively, per student per semester.

Conclusions and Relevance  In this analytic modeling study, screening every 2 days using a rapid, inexpensive, and even poorly sensitive (>70%) test, coupled with strict behavioral interventions to keep Rt less than 2.5, is estimated to maintain a controllable number of COVID-19 infections and permit the safe return of students to campus.

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Article Information

Accepted for Publication: July 2, 2020.

Published: July 31, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.16818

Correction: This article was corrected on August 18, 2020, to fix a broken link in the eAppendix of the Supplement.

Open Access: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the CC-BY License. © 2020 Paltiel AD et al. JAMA Network Open.

Corresponding Author: A. David Paltiel, PhD, Public Health Modeling Unit, Yale School of Public Health, 60 College St, New Haven, CT 06510 (david.paltiel@yale.edu).

Author Contributions: Drs Paltiel and Walensky had full access to all of the data in the study and take responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.

Concept and design: All authors.

Acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data: All authors.

Drafting of the manuscript: All authors.

Critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content: Paltiel, Walensky.

Statistical analysis: Walensky.

Obtained funding: Paltiel, Walensky.

Administrative, technical, or material support: All authors.

Supervision: Paltiel.

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

Funding/Support: Dr Paltiel was supported by grant R37 DA015612 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health. Dr Walensky was supported by the Steve and Deborah Gorlin Research Scholars Award from the Massachusetts General Hospital Executive Committee on Research.

Role of the Funder/Sponsor: The funders had no role in the design and conduct of the study; collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of the data; preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript; and decision to submit the manuscript for publication.

Disclaimer: The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health or the Massachusetts General Hospital Executive Committee on Research.

Additional Contributions: The authors thank the Massachusetts university presidents of the COVID-19 Testing Group for motivating this research. Helpful conversations with these and other college presidents shaped and refined our analysis, strategies, and assumptions.

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