How KU’s reporting of COVID-19 testing data compares with other universities

photo by: Conner Mitchell/Journal-World

COVID-19 protocols adorn a doorway on the University of Kansas campus.

Since Aug. 7, the University of Kansas has undertaken the massive logistical challenge of administering a mandatory saliva test for COVID-19 to every student, staff member and faculty member returning to campus for the fall semester.

That effort has so far resulted in nearly 19,500 tests, with 222 total positive results for the respiratory virus, according to the most recent data released on Tuesday. On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System, praised KU officials in daily media briefings both for the effort to offer intake testing and to make the data available to the public on a regular basis.

A Journal-World analysis, though, shows that the university is releasing far less information than many of its peer institutions across the country — and even some in the state of Kansas.

Since the testing program began three weeks ago, KU has released data to the public twice, with a third release promised for Friday. The first, on Aug. 20, revealed 89 positive tests out of 7,088 participants and was broken down only into students and faculty/staff members.

The second release, on Tuesday, revealed the number of positives had risen to 222 cases from 19,452 total tests. This time, the data was broken down a bit further and detailed the number of students belonging to fraternities or sororities versus the rest of the student population. The data also included the first round of tests from the Edwards Campus in Overland Park.

While KU may have increased slightly the data it released between Aug. 20 and Tuesday, colleges and universities that KU considers to be its peer institutions have been releasing far more information, and for longer, than Kansas’ flagship university.

The University of North Carolina, for example, has a comprehensive and interactive online COVID-19 dashboard which details the number of positive cases each day for both students and employees, specific locations of virus outbreaks and how many cases are associated with each one, cumulative testing data dating back to February, the occupancy of on-campus housing, and the university’s supply status for different categories of personal protective equipment.

This level of transparency is especially surprising, according to Frank LoMonte, the director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida and former longtime director of the Student Press Law Center. LoMonte specializes in First Amendment law and student educational rights, and said that for years North Carolina has been one of the most opaque public institutions in the country.

“UNC sort of sets the standard for what a nontransparent university looks like, so you would hope to at least be as transparent as the most nontransparent university,” he told the Journal-World.

LoMonte estimated that 75% of higher education institutions were being truly transparent and forthcoming with their COVID-19 statistics. The other 25% — in which he included KU — are likely being less forthcoming because of fears of violating federal laws on medical and student privacy, he said.

Reporting any data, though, is more than some public universities are doing. Recently, the New York Times surveyed over 1,000 colleges across the U.S. and asked them to self-report the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases on their campuses. Hundreds either didn’t respond or declined to answer, the paper reported.

While it’s noble to want to protect private information, LoMonte said, it’s nearly impossible to violate that privacy by releasing blanket statistics — even the number of positive cases in a confirmed outbreak location, for example.

“Numbers are not personally identifiable information,” he said. “There’s no way that a statistic enables anyone to make a match to a named individual … It’s either statistical ignorance or it’s purposeful obfuscation.”

Still, Stites in Wednesday’s daily media update from the KU Health System, praised the university for its transparency, and expanded on those thoughts Thursday in response to questions from the Journal-World.

“KU does a great job, because they did test everybody. I can’t describe to you what a remarkable feat that is,” Stites said. “That is at the top percentile of the United States. Very few schools have committed to that.”

As Stites explains it, testing everyone upon intake to the university makes reporting the data more difficult for KU because of the sheer quantity.

While North Carolina did not test everyone upon a return to its campus — which lasted one week before students were sent back home for the semester — other universities are processing test quantities each day that are comparable to what KU has released thus far.

The chief example of this comes from the University of Illinois, which has nearly 17,000 more students than KU but is still considered a peer institution. Illinois is mandating that all campus members undergo twice-weekly saliva testing that its own lab developed and has the capacity to process.

Illinois officials, though, still have to wade through the voluminous testing data to produce the university’s daily updates on the total number of tests, those testing positive, and a five-day running average of the percent positive rate in its interactive dashboard.

The University of Alabama also tested all of its roughly 38,000 students for COVID-19 upon their arrival to campus and updates frequently a noninteractive dashboard that details testing data and the number of students in isolation at each of its system campuses.

Eighty miles west of Lawrence, Kansas State University — which did not require COVID-19 intake testing — has also launched a noninteractive dashboard to update its campus on the status of COVID-19, and includes testing statistics from the past week, cumulative testing data since March, numbers of students in isolation and quarantine, the campus’ current operational status and the percentage breakdown of class instructional methods.

KU officials have not responded to past inquiries from the Journal-World about whether the university will launch a dashboard to update the public more frequently on COVID-19 data or what information would be included. Stites volunteered Thursday that the university is still working on its dashboard but made it clear that he thought KU handled its reopening testing program and the communication of subsequent data in the best way possible.

“I think we did it right,” he said. “I think it’s more important to have tested everybody and get back to those individual students to tell them that they’re positive and they have to sequester in place and not go out in order not to make someone else sick.”

“It’s far better off than not knowing. It’s a lot better to know and say you need to sequester in place,” Stites said. “The testing reporting will catch up … Honestly the data reporting is a little after the fact. You have to identify the spreaders.”

KU will next release data on Friday from its initial intake testing. The university has not yet specified what virus testing will take place after the first round of testing concludes.

Contact Conner Mitchell

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