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Wayne State posts guidelines for action if COVID-19 spreads

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

As the majority of public universities begin fall semester classes this week amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Wayne State University has developed a plan with specific benchmarks about when to take action to contain any potential spread of the virus.

The Detroit-based university would take its most drastic step and depopulate the campus if testing shows positive cases within the university community to exceed 15%, or three or more clusters appear in seven days or if fewer than 15% of hospital beds and fewer than 15% of intensive care unit beds are available.

Towers Hall is seen on the Wayne State University campus in Detroit, which is all but empty, Wednesday afternoon, March 11, 2020.

The "tipping point metrics," posted online Monday, include thresholds that will trigger and guide Wayne State officials in their decision-making in the event of numerous COVID-19 cases.

While many universities have a plan of when to take action, the Detroit university is among a small number of universities nationwide that are publishing specific numerical thresholds to trigger actions if coronavirus infections escalate.

Wayne State made the move after watching other universities that have returned to campus and grappled with numerous coronavirus cases. It also wanted to be transparent and clear about what will happen if necessary, President M. Roy Wilson said.

"I don't think the time to make a decision is ... when everything is getting worse," said Wilson, who is an epidemiologist. "You have to have some things already worked out so you are not wasting time. We know the science, and we know when things reach a certain level, it’s bad."  

Laurie Clabo, WSU's interim provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, added that having barometers for taking steps will inform the community as well as remove the uncertainty and emotion of when to make a move if the university needs to take quick action.

"By far, the vast majority of our students, faculty and staff are going to behave responsibly," Clabo said. "They recognize the importance of simple measures like social distancing, hand hygiene, universal masking in preventing the spread of this virus. It remains my firm belief that those who don’t follow those processes will be  a very small number. But what we know about the virus is a very small number can have a very large impact. And that’s why we are going to keep our eyes on these metrics."

Besides the most drastic move of shutting down the campus, the guidelines include times when the Wayne State will be on heightened alert and when the university will take targeted actions, such as closing a building.

But not all universities have made similar moves.

Eastern Michigan University has published general guidelines that include "significant increases or decreases in COVID-19 transmission on campus occur at a rate significantly different from that of our surrounding community." 

"The University is continually receiving and reviewing guidance from federal, state, and local authorities," according to EMU's website. "We will closely monitor this guidance and conditions on campus, to determine whether changes must be made at any point to ensure continued safety."

The University of Michigan will monitor numerous data points to determine any changes during fall semester, said spokesman Rick Fitzgerald, pointing to a question answered on a UM website. 

"There is no one number that would prompt a change," according to the website. "Among these factors are: the spread of COVID-19 locally and regionally; the capacity of area hospitals; campus isolation capacity; contact tracing and other factors. University health officials will consider the current state in all of these areas when making any future decisions."

Central Michigan University — which began classes on Aug. 17 and has since documented 117 cases — also has no threshold or number of cases that would trigger a shift to remote instruction.

"CMU will remain open for face-to-face instruction for as long as we are able to manage and mitigate the risks related to COVID-19," according to the university's website. "There is no set threshold or number of cases that would trigger a shift to remote instruction. Rather, the decision to shift will be based on a variety of factors, including guidance from our local health department, counsel from our CMU Health medical professionals, input from our local hospitals and health care providers, suggestions from our emergency management team and direction from state leaders."

Andrew M. Schocket, a professor of history and American culture studies at Bowling Green State University, has called Wayne State's move "wise" and urged other universities in an Inside Higher Ed editorial to post specific measures for when infections might start increasing.

Setting specific triggers for action now will make decision-making easier for university presidents, Schocket said during an interview, especially since there are many political and financial pressures involved.

“We are all subject to cognitive biases and among those are ones that make most of us tend to be optimistic, tend to think our decisions are likely to turn out well, tend to be more likely to continue on our path because we’ve said we’ve start it," he said. "Those are patterns of behavior that we as humans do and in this situation could lead to mean a lot more cases and deaths among students, faculty and staff and community members

"The way to guard against those is to set up those metrics like Wayne State has wisely done to protect themselves from these human cognitive biases."

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com