Student Center on the campus of Jackson State University. Photo: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

As COVID-19 continues to overwhelm Mississippi, classes are in full swing at colleges across the state.

These first weeks of the semester, researchers say, are prime time for outbreaks to occur on college campuses. A peer-reviewed study published earlier this year found that in 18 out of 30 large U.S. universities, an outbreak on campus was followed by a surge in cases in the surrounding county less than 14 days later.

That was the case last year at University of Mississippi, where the Mississippi State Department of Health identified an outbreak five days before the semester started, as students were moving into the dorms.

So far this semester, the Mississippi Department of Health has not announced any campus outbreaks, though the likelihood that one will spread to the surrounding community is high. On Aug. 31, 2020, the seven-day average for new COVID cases was 639. A year later, as the highly contagious Delta variant spreads throughout Mississippi, that figure is 3,159.

This means it’s a particularly important time for students, faculty and staff to stay vigilant and adhere to their campus’ safety guidelines.

It’s also important that universities closely track COVID cases. The latest guidance from the Mississippi Department of Health advises colleges and universities to continue contact tracing to identify COVID-19 positive individuals and remove them from the school setting, particularly dormitories where transmission is more likely.

Contact tracing — along with swift testing — is vital for stopping the spread of COVID on campus. It’s also how universities and MSDH can trace cases back to college campuses in the event a student goes back to their home county to get a COVID test.

Below, Mississippi Today has compiled a list of the efforts Mississippi universities say they are taking to monitor the spread of the coronavirus on campus. Without statewide guidance, these efforts vary based on each university’s capacity and resources.

Where to get tested on campus

Health centers at Mississippi universities have pivoted to focus on offering the COVID-19 vaccine this semester, but they are still offering on-campus COVID testing by appointment.

  • UM has on-campus testing available for students and employees through the Health Center. Scheduling an appointment is encouraged, though walk-ins are available.
  • Jackson State University is conducting testing for students and employees at its Student Health Center.
  • Walk-in COVID testing is available at Delta State University’s O.W. Reilly Student Health Services.
  • At Alcorn State University, COVID testing is available at the Rowan Hall Health Services Center. Call 601–877–6460 for more information.
  • At Mississippi State University, testing is available through the Longest Student Health Center. Appointments can be scheduled by calling 662–325–2055.
  • University of Southern Mississippi is offering COVID-19 tests at the Moffit Health Center by appointment only.
  • COVID tests are available by appointment at Mississippi University for Women for students and employees at its Campus Health Center “based on physical assessment, history and test availability.” Appointments can be made by calling 662–329–7289.
  • Mississippi Valley State University is providing COVID tests from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the RW Harrison HPER Complex from Monday, Aug. 30, to Thursday, Sept. 2. Students must register with LabLINQ Diagnostics in order to receive a test.

How colleges are reporting case numbers

Though all eight universities are supposed to report COVID test numbers weekly to the Mississippi Department of Health — just like every testing site across the state — the schools are not required to make case numbers publicly available. And unlike K-12 schools, MSDH does not publish that data.

  • UM is continuing to maintain a daily tracker for active confirmed cases on its COVID-19 webpage. Cases roll off the tracker after 10 days. The university is also aggregating all case numbers “reported to the university or confirmed by state and/or public health agencies” in a separate blog post. It is not clear which cases were reported to the university versus confirmed by on-campus testing.
  • MSU is posting daily reports of total tests and positive results among students and employees. Cases roll off this dashboard after 14 days.
  • JSU is keeping a running list of the daily number of students and employees who are positive for COVID-19. In most instances, the cases on the list are self-reported.
  • On June 1, 2021, ASU started maintaining a cumulative list of reported cases among students and employees. The list provides the total number of tests conducted for students, but not for employees. The list is updated daily, Monday to Friday. Last school year, ASU was the only university that did not maintain a public list of cases.
  • MVSU is maintaining a spreadsheet of confirmed cases among students and employees. Daily totals and cumulative monthly totals are displayed for the current month. Cumulative monthly totals are available for past months.
  • MUW is maintaining a table, updated weekly on Friday, of confirmed cases among students and employees. Cumulative totals for the school year are also provided. The table is sometimes updated throughout the week.
  • USM is updating its testing numbers weekly.
  • DSU is not maintaining a public dashboard of case numbers, though it did last year.

Tracing COVID on campus

Tracing is used to identify people who were exposed to a COVID-positive person. The CDC continues to define “close contact” as being within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more.

  • UM has the most built-out contact tracing program, with a team of volunteers from each of the five departments in the School of Applied Sciences. Volunteers are trained in HIPAA compliance and through a contact tracing course from Johns Hopkins University. The school is also using an app called EverBridge to identify and notify people who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
  • USM is also using the EverBridge app to assist MSDH with contact tracing.
  • At MUW, the Health Center is conducting contact tracing for students and employees who are exposed to other COVID positive people on-campus.
  • MSU is conducting contact tracing through the Longest Student Health Center.
  • DSU and MVSU are operating their contact tracing programs through their human resources department. Epidemiologists say it is not ideal for universities to run contact tracing out of their HR departments but it may be okay for tighter-knit universities.

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.