UT-Austin community can amplify COVID-19 transmission in Austin, UT report says

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Photo Credit: Megan Clarke | Daily Texan Staff

UT students returning to campus this fall could still amplify COVID-19 transmission in Austin, but there may be a delay in detecting the spread, according to a report by the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. 

“Chains of transmission that start within the UT population as early as September can gradually extend into the community leading to large numbers of cases, hospitalizations and even deaths over the course of months,” the report said. “The resulting lag can lead to a false sense of security regarding the spillover of risk into the community and a failure to recognize the causal links.”

The spread of COVID-19 from UT into Austin depends on the student-to-student and community wide rates of transmission, according to the report. University research associate Spencer Fox said COVID-19 spread on campus could strain the city’s health care capacity. 

“Whether UT students get infected and then infect their parents or other family members in Austin, or it’s students … getting infected and then infecting the general people we interact with, … it'd basically constrain the health care system in Austin by sparking chains of transmission that could lead to significant disease burden in the city,” Fox said. 

Darlene Bhavnani, an epidemiologist at Dell Medical School, said as of Sept. 21, only 1% of all case-contact relationships were between an infected student and someone outside the college age range. She said she is optimistic the disease can be contained to the UT community, according to previous reporting by The Daily Texan.

 

Fox said he doesn’t believe the report contradicts Bhavnani’s findings. The report is meant as a planning tool developed using models based on how much spread is occurring in Austin and the UT community, Fox said.

If UT enforces control measures and provides rapid testing, contact tracing and isolation resources for all students, it could lower the risk of the UT community spreading the disease into the city, according to the report.

“The graphs and tables ... are not intended as forecasts and do not present the full range of possibilities,” according to the report. “Rather, they should be interpreted as plausible scenarios that highlight the potential impacts of transmission among students on the health and safety of the entire UT and Austin communities.”

University spokesperson J.B. Bird said about 80% of coronavirus cases were reached by the contact tracing team.

Last week, UT conducted 1,599 tests in the Proactive Community testing program out of the University’s goal of 5,000 tests per week, according to the UT COVID-19 dashboard. The University will roll out an incentive program for UT community members who volunteer to get tested, according to a Monday morning message from UT President Jay Hartzell. 

Fox said the amount of testing by UT could be enough to prevent spread if it is a reasonably accurate representation of the entire UT population. 

“Our hope is that testing expands, not only in number, but also potentially in diversity of the types of students that are coming in to get tested,” Fox said. “We know that there are different subpopulations on campus that are going to have disease at different levels. … A lot of the proactive community testing on campus is showing different disease prevalence than the group of students who are tested for the football game.”