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Back-to-Campus in a Safe Way: Health Considerations for Institutions of Higher Education
In just a few short weeks we may begin to hear the familiar sounds of rallies on the quad, football games, and parties signaling the return of college students from summer break and the start of another school year. As students come back on campus, beware, unwelcomed guests arrive as well. These dangerous intruders are waiting to be caught, and go by many names including, rhinovirus, influenza, meningitis, and SARS-CoV-2.
Burden of Disease
As students cram into classrooms and lecture halls, share food and drinks, live in close quarters, and participate in various social activities, it is no surprise that pathogens are quick to spread and may cause infection at college and universities1. COVID-19 demonstrated this as campuses were often hit the hardest. The reality is, well before the pandemic, institutions of higher education were unnecessarily burdened with high rates of illness.
In 2019, nearly 46% of college students reported experiencing cold, flu, or upper respiratory illness at some point during the academic year2. Now with lower COVID-19 rates, precautions lessening, and immune systems out of practice, there are rising concerns over the real likelihood that more frequent and severe infections may occur this year3.
There is a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic: the spotlight is now on health at institutions of higher education, making them more aware, equipped, and in a better place to address the spread of infection. It is their opportunity and responsibility to be prepared and to take a proactive approach to help keep these pathogens at bay. The following are recommendations to help create a safer and healthier campus this upcoming year.
Develop Robust Plans and Protocols
In response to a global pandemic, institutions were forced to dust off plans they were hoping to never use. In many cases, guidance had to be quickly adopted or even created from scratch. As a sliver of “normal” appears and the hustle and bustle of campus returns, now is the time to ensure the ability to manage and respond to any pathogens threatening campus health.
I recommend that before this school year starts, every institution should:
- Evaluate current health and safety policies and response plans to determine any gaps.
- Establish new protocols for mitigation and revise any outdated guidance.
- Incorporate insights and lessons learned from the pandemic.
- Lean on relationships with local public health to adopt evidence-based practices.
The pandemic made clear the need to quickly identify health threats so that an appropriate and timely response can occur. As testing capability increased with new laboratories and technology, so did the ability to detect and prevent COVID-19 infections. If we aim to prevent the transmission of illness as the school year begins, similar methods of surveillance must be in place to detect infections.
To implement an effective surveillance strategy:
- Establish a process to monitor the campus population for common illnesses, not just COVID-19.
- Provide campus members with education and resources about diagnostic testing.
- Engage campus health services and local public health officials to monitor disease trends and identify potential outbreaks.
- Be prepared to initiate plans and mitigation strategies based on new data.
Wearing a mask in public, although not fun, proved to be an effective intervention in slowing the spread of COVID-194. Likewise, other measures such as providing disinfecting wipes in shared spaces, setting up hand sanitizer stations, and implementing physical distancing markers, were taken to stop the spread of pathogens at colleges and universities. These interventions accompanied by other activities are necessary to decrease the spread of campus pathogens.
To complete your infection prevention strategy:
- Provide resources to encourage the sick to self-isolate away from campus.
- Maintain sufficient supply levels of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes for campus use.
- Ensure custodial staff have the proper training and tools to perform cleaning and disinfection of spaces and surfaces effectively and regularly.
- Consider adopting new technology, such as electrostatic sprayers, to increase cleaning and disinfection efficiency and enhance safety in shared spaces.
- Promote vaccinations and safe health practices.
If we want to hear the happy sounds of a buzzing campus this year, a critical look at past, present, and future practices must occur as school begins. These recommendations, when applied, will increase the capacity of institutions of higher education and likewise K-12 Schools, to successfully mitigate the spread of illness. As a result, we can feel confident knowing students and campuses are supported in their academic development and ambitions.
- Shah M, Ferra G, Fitzgerald S, Barreira PJ, Sabeti PC, Colubri A. Containing the spread of infectious disease on college campuses. bioRxiv. 2020. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/2020.07.31.20166348
- American College Health Association. American College Health Association – National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA-II). Reference Group Data Report, Spring 2019.
- Consumer news. As COVID rules ease, common colds rebound across America [Internet]. Consumer Health News | HealthDay. 2021 [cited 2021 Jul 12]. Available from: https://consumer.healthday.com/6-24-as-covid-rules-recede-common-colds-rebound-across-america-2653478411.html
- Brooks JT, Butler JC. Effectiveness of mask wearing to control community spread of SARS-CoV-2. JAMA. 2021;325(10):998–9.