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How Penn State's COVID-19 Numbers Compared To Other Universities This Fall

Penn State student Kaitlyn Harris did an asymptomatic saliva test at a mobile testing site in August.
Min Xian
Penn State student Kaitlyn Harris did an asymptomatic saliva test at a mobile testing site in August.


Penn State is one of many universities that had students return for fall classes during the coronavirus pandemic. Classes at Penn State and many other universities have now moved to remote learning at the Thanksgiving break. WPSU took a look how different universities handled testing and their COVID-19 numbers relative to Penn State. 

The New York Times tracked COVID cases at more than 19,000 colleges and universities in the United States. Only five topped 4,000 positives -- Clemson, the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, Ohio State and Penn State.

Out of Penn State University Park’s more than 46,000 students, almost 5,000 contracted COVID-19. Some Penn State faculty have been critical of the university's handling of the situation.

Fellow Big Ten school, Ohio State University, had about the same number of positive cases, despite being bigger by about 15,000 students. At Ohio State, on-campus students were required to get tested once a week.

Ohio State student Daniel Fabregas smiles for a picture.
Credit Daniel Fabregas
Ohio State student Daniel Fabregas smiles for a picture.

“Overall, I don’t really have any complaints so to say about the COVID testing experience," Daniel Fabregas said. 

Ohio State sophomore Fabregas used the university’s online portal to schedule his weekly coronavirus test, which he said was an easy process.

Penn State students were selected at random for testing or could get an on-demand test.

The University of Illinois was lauded for testing every one of its roughly 35,000 undergraduate students for COVID-19 twice a week. The university has conducted nearly a million saliva tests since July, including over 17,000 on one day at the beginning of the semester.

“The fact that like everybody was able to get tested, like twice a week was amazing," Justin Shen said. 

Shen is a junior studying accounting at Illinois.

Shen said he’s glad he went back to school for his one in-person class. He felt safer there than at home in Portland, Oregon.

Shen (in orange sweatshirt) at a Taiwanese American Student Coalition event at the University of Illinois.
Credit Justin Shen
Shen (in orange sweatshirt) at a Taiwanese American Student Coalition event at the University of Illinois.

The university used an app called “Safer Illinois,” which sent students and faculty their coronavirus test results and only gave them access to on-campus buildings if they had an up-to-date negative test.

Still, more than 3,000 Illinois students contracted COVID-19 over the semester. For comparison, Penn State conducted a tenth the tests, but found 2,000 more positives.

About half of Penn State’s classes this fall had some form of in-person instruction. The University of Michigan started the fall semester with about 70% of undergraduate classes online and ended with 90% online.

Arya Desai is one of 30,000 undergrads at Michigan. The junior studying biology, health and society was happy to go back to Ann Arbor.

“It’s definitely better than being at home and I still get to see like a few of my like close friends and like keep each other sane," Desai said.

Arya Desai (left) at a Michigan football game with friends.
Credit Arya Desai
Arya Desai (left) at a Michigan football game with friends.

Desai had one in-person class, but the professor held the class in-person only a few times due to grad student strikes and intervention by the local health department.

In late October, COVID spikes led the Washtenaw County Health Department to issue a 14-day stay-in-place order for the university, citing that the University of Michigan accounted for more than 60% of the county’s cases. Penn State’s positives accounted for nearly 90% of cases logged during the semester in Centre County. The county does not have its own health department.  

Michigan ended the semester with 2,000 positives.

For the spring, Michigan president Mark Schlissel has told many undergraduate students to stay home.

In a recent COVID update to the university, Schlissel said next semester, students who live on campus or want to go to in-person classes will have to get tested once a week.

“We're gonna take more advantage of testing and make it required for certain populations," Schlissel said. 

Dr. Ali Mokdad is the chief strategy officer for population health at the University of Washington. A trained epidemiologist, Mokdad praised most of the universities which brought students back for the fall and recommended they stay open.

“There will be never a zero chance of getting an infection on a big campus, never," Mokdad said. "But you can bring it down to a very low level, which is safer for our students to be on campus than anywhere else.”

Mokdad said universities can do more by delivering consistent public health messages to students, explaining why it’s important to wear masks and stay socially distanced. Mokdad said students must be respectful of the community when they're off campus.

“If you want the college to be open or the university to be open, you have to do your part within your community," Mokdad said.

If universities like Penn State want to continue with in-person classes, Mokdad said they don’t need to drastically change how they operate. Instead, Mokdad said Penn State should continue with its health protocols and try to keep the virus out of the community until coronavirus vaccines arrive.

“Help is coming, and we see the light at the end of the tunnel, so we need to be extra careful right now," Mokdad said.

Penn State plans to have students back on campus for more in-person classes starting on Jan. 19. The university will require re-entry testing of all students.

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