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The combined effectiveness of three COVID-prevention strategies on college campuses–mask-wearing, social distancing, and routine testing–are equally as effective in preventing coronavirus infections as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), according to a new study co-authored by a Case Western Reserve University researcher.
The study, published in Annals of Internal Medicine, has immediate significance as college semesters are poised to start again–and as the distribution of approved vaccines lags behind targets.
The analysis found that a combination of just two common measures–distancing and mandatory masks–prevents 87% of campus COVID-19 infections and costs just $170 per infection prevented.
Adding regular lab-based testing to the mix would prevent 92% to 96% of COVID infections. Nonetheless, the cost per infection prevented increases substantially, to $2,000 to $17,000 per year, depending on test frequency.
It is clear that two common non-medical strategies are very effective and inexpensive–and allow for some in-person instruction.While it’s true routine testing of the asymptomatic helps catch some infections early and reduce transmissions, they also pose the highest financial and operational burden, even if performed every 14 days.”
Pooyan Kazemian, Study Co-Senior Author, Assistant Professor, Operations, Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University
Since the infection rate continues to rise throughout the winter, the findings are particularly meaningful for institutions of higher learning aiming to strike a balance between in-person and remote instruction, while handling costs to promote security and reduce transmissions.
“While some measures are highly effective, implementing them is entirely up to each college’s financial situation, which may happen to be strained due to the pandemic,” said Pooyan Kazemian, co-senior author of the study and an assistant professor of operations in the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve.
Among the study’s other findings:
Approximately three of every four students–and almost one in six college –could become infected over the semester at the absence of mitigation efforts.
Minimal social distancing policies would just reduce infections by 16 percent in pupils.
Whilst closing the campus and switching to online-only education would reduce infections by 63% among students, it would be less powerful than opening the campus and implementing a mask-wearing and social distancing policy, which would reduce infections by 87% among students.
Researchers analyzed 24 combinations of four common preventive strategies–social distancing, mask-wearing, isolation and testing –and calculated their efficacy and cost per infection prevented.
The group took into account interactions between three groups: students, faculty, and the surrounding community (including employees ), and used a computer simulation model Kazemian and his coworkers developed–called Clinical and Fiscal Analysis of COVID-19 interventions, or CEACOV–that simulated a session of a midsize college (5,000 students and 1,000 faculty).
“While states have begun offering COVID-19 vaccine to healthcare workers, first responders, and long-term care centers, it is unlikely that most students and university faculty and staff will be offered a vaccine until late in the spring session,” said Kazemian. “Therefore, commitment to mask-wearing and extensive social distancing, including canceling large gatherings and reducing class sizes using a hybrid education system, remains the primary strategy for minimizing infections and keeping the campus open during the spring session.”
Case Western Reserve University