college students sitting on bench, masked and separated because of COVID

Preventing COVID on Campus

A new study says that wearing masks, maintaining social distance, and testing can be as effective as vaccines.

Photo by iStock/kzenon

How can colleges lower the risk of COVID within their communities? According to a new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, schools can promote mask-wearing, social distancing, and routine testing. When these three strategies are combined, the authors say, they are as effective at preventing coronavirus infections as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

The study found that a combination of just two common measures—distancing and mandatory masks—prevents 87 percent of campus COVID-19 infections and costs only 170 USD per infection prevented. Adding routine lab-based testing to the mix would prevent 92 percent to 96 percent of COVID infections. However, the cost per infection prevented would increase substantially—to 2,000 USD to 17,000 USD each, depending on test frequency.

“While some measures are highly effective, implementing them is entirely up to each college’s financial situation, which may have already become strained because of the pandemic,” says Pooyan Kazemian, co-senior author of the study and an assistant professor of operations at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Among the study’s other findings:

  • In the absence of all mitigation efforts, about three of every four students—and nearly one in six faculty—would become infected over the semester.
  • Minimal social distancing policies would reduce infections in students by only 16 percent.
  • Closing the campus and switching to online-only education would reduce infections by 63 percent among students. However, that would be less effective than opening the campus and implementing a mask-wearing and social distancing policy, which would reduce infections by 87 percent among students.

The researchers examined 24 combinations of four common preventive strategies—social distancing, mask-wearing, testing, and isolation—and calculated their effectiveness and cost per infection prevented. Team members took into account interactions between three groups: students, faculty, and the surrounding community (including staff). They used a computer simulation model that simulated the interactions occurring during a semester at a mid-sized college with a population of 5,000 students and 1,000 faculty.

The study authors note that these findings are especially meaningful for schools trying to strike a balance between in-person and remote instruction, particularly as infection rates rise during the winter months.

Kazemian points out that it’s unlikely that university faculty, staff, and students will be vaccinated before the spring. Therefore, schools that want to keep their campuses open through the spring semester should commit to “mask-wearing and extensive social distancing, including canceling large gatherings and reducing class sizes with a hybrid education system.”