How Geography Affects COVID-19 in Higher Ed

As universities begin to reopen campuses, geography will play a pivotal role in higher educational testing strategies and protecting students, campuses, and staff. As

Like anything else, coronavirus testing is not immune to the ramifications of local politics and policies. We’ve of course witnessed this on a national scale, but also on a regional scale as different states have battled their respective outbreaks, and continue to do so. First Washington, then New York, now Texas, Florida, and Arizona. 

Differing policies surrounding quarantine and the easing of restrictions have been attributed to  subsequent containment of or upticks in cases. As universities begin to reopen campuses, geography will play a pivotal role in higher educational testing strategies and protecting students, campuses, and staff. As you craft your campus’ policy, here are a couple factors to consider. 

Hot spot, or not?

In a July 29th federal report, 21 U.S states were identified as coronavirus “Red Zones”: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin. These zones were previously established as areas that experienced more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people during the previous week, or experienced positive test rates upwards of 10%. 

As the U.S death toll surpasses 170,000, colleges and universities in these states have three key decisions at hand. First, they have to weigh the risks of reopening. Second, they’ll have to decide  how to test students once they arrive on campus. Third, they’ll need to establish contact tracing and quarantine procedures in the event an outbreak occurs. These decisions are all the more relevant now that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has pivoted to a fully digital model after over a hundred students tested positive for the virus, just one week after starting their in-person fall semester.

Rural vs. urban 

Whether or not a campus is rural or urban will also dramatically affect institutions’ testing capacities and strategies. Even prior to COVID, the United States was facing a healthcare worker shortage. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, in 2018, there was only an average of 277.8 active physicians per 100,000 population in the United States, with the highest number of physicians per population concentrated in the Northeast. Massachusetts had an average of 449.5, while Mississippi only had 191.3. Because of this disparity, rural colleges and universities are particularly at risk should outbreaks occur, especially if they are already located in Red Zones. 

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