University of Georgia Faculty Members Say Campus in 'Grave Danger' Over School's COVID Policies

Four faculty members at the University of Georgia (UGA) penned a column criticizing the way that the college has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and returned to school.

The professors said that the systems put in place by UGA are not enough. "We are in grave danger that is made doubly acute because we are operating blindly," they wrote.

The column, published today in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, was penned by Department of Health Policy and Management associate professors Grace Bagwell Adams and Zhuo "Adam" Chen; Department of Public Administration and Policy associate professor Amanda Abraham; and George D. Busbee Chair in Public Policy and professor W. David Bradford

The college began its fall semester on Thursday with guidelines that require students to wear face coverings and practice social distancing. In July, UGA announced that it would begin "surveillance testing" to monitor the virus' presence at the college and estimated that it will take 300 tests per day. It also introduced a new tool for students and faculty to self-check for symptoms with an app.

The professors wrote that while they want UGA to reopen, they felt the university had failed in an effort to be transparent and effectively monitor COVID-19 on campus. "We regretfully conclude that UGA's plan for testing, tracing, and data-sharing fails miserably in terms of adequacy for surveillance or management, action, and transparency," they said.

They dismissed the 300 tests per day, saying that it wasn't enough for a college of UGA's size. Citing a study by UGA ecology professor John M. Drake, they said that the university would require more than 6,000 tests per day in order to adequately monitor the virus. They said that professors calling for the university to ramp up testing have been ignored, and that saliva-testing has allowed places like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to test thousands of people per day. The latter school, according to The Washington Post, has reached its goal of 20,000 tests per day.

The authors also called on the college to release daily test results. According to them, UGA has said that "legal constraints" prevent it from releasing the data and—in private communications—that "faculty cannot be trusted to understand the data."

They said that the lack of information about the new cases has left them "flying blind" and unable to check the actions that the college is taking. "[W]e cannot make plans, but must merely trust that UGA is choosing the correct action," they wrote.

The authors also said the college has been lackluster in contact tracing, relying on the regional public health department to handle the process for quarantining and testing people who have been in close contact with individuals diagnosed with coronavirus. According to the Georgia Recorder, the state's 1,225 contact tracers were anticipating getting overwhelmed as Georgia saw a spike in COVID cases in July.

They explained the school should have stepped up with contact tracing, not just leaving it to the overwhelmed contact tracers with the department. "This results in a significant time lag, basically rendering contact tracing of little to no effect," the column read.

Looking to schools such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which pivoted to online learning after a post-reopening spike in cases, the authors said that UGA's handling has shown that an uptick in cases could come as a surprise. "The weak testing, lack of randomization, and lack of transparency at UGA means we may not see the wave until we're inundated and local health capacity is overwhelmed," they wrote.

In the column's closing, the authors called for the college to accelerate its testing, step up its contact tracing, and share data discovered from the tests. "Test! Be transparent! Be collaborative! And, be willing to pivot before it's too late and not after," the piece ended.

Greg Trevor, UGA's senior executive director for marketing and communications, said in a statement that the plan had been vetted and recommended by professionals. The full statement is below:

It is easy to criticize a plan without having to operationalize one for a community of 50,000 faculty, staff and students. The surveillance and testing plan put in place by the University of Georgia was thoroughly vetted and recommended by the members of our Medical Oversight Task Force, which includes the deans of the College of Public Health, the College of Veterinary Medicine, the Augusta University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership, and the executive director of the University Health Center. Two of the four are licensed, practicing physicians; the others are esteemed members of the faculty.

The nasopharyngeal swab testing being conducted for free by UGA on campus is one of the most reliable forms of testing available. UGA is able to analyze specimens and provide accurate results within 24 - 72 hours. The purpose of our testing is surveillance. With 300 – 360 tests per day, we can monitor the direction of prevalence. If we see increases, we can determine hotspots and identify areas for intervention.

Those who test positive in the UGA community are required to report those results through UGA's notification tool and are asked to provide names and information of those with whom they have come into close contact. The Georgia Department of Public Health, by law, bears the responsibility for contact tracing, but the information provided by UGA as a partner in the process gives their contact tracers a headstart in this important work.

Combined with other comprehensive measures to protect the community, an emphasis on social distancing, and a mandate to wear face coverings indoors, UGA is taking decisive action to promote the health and safety of its faculty, staff and students.

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People stand in line to get tested for COVID-19 at a free walk-up testing site on July 11, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. A group of professors from University of Georgia criticized the way the university has handled its coronavirus testing and reopening. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty