When universities across the U.S. opted to return students to campus for in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic in the fall of 2020, surrounding communities were understandably concerned that COVID-19 infections rates would significantly increase.
In response, several Penn State researchers formed the Centre County COVID-19 Data 4 Action Project (D4A) to conduct anonymous surveys and biological testing for nonstudent residents and Penn State students to document the social and economic impacts of the pandemic in one community.
According to project co-principal investigator Matthew Ferrari, Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences Career Development Professor and professor of biology, the biological testing involved collecting blood, saliva, and hair samples from community resident and student volunteers to test for the presence of antibodies to COVID-19.
“We discovered that despite a high positivity rate among students in the fall, the positivity rate in the nonstudent residents remained stable from before student arrival to after their departure in December,” said Ferrari. “This indicated that there was the potential for containing the virus in sub-populations.”
The project continued biological testing through May, 2021. Results indicated that between 55 and 60% of students tested through April were positive to COVID-19 antibodies. “Contact with known COVID-19 positive individuals and attendance at small gatherings were significant predictors of detecting antibodies among the student group,” Ferrari said.
Conversely, results from nonstudent participants indicated approximately 8% tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies. “The influx of students into college and university towns reflects a significant increase in population size and density that could result in increases in COVID-19 risk in surrounding communities,” Ferrari said, noting that, although all communities are different, the outcomes observed in this study might be similar in other locations that follow public health guidance as directed. “Despite the potential risk, we now know there is potential to minimize risk with targeted interventions.”
Another D4A co-investigator, Nita Bharti, Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences Early Career Professor and assistant professor of biology, conducted two independent studies that corroborate and provide important context to the D4A antibody results.
Bharti and the research team found that when Penn State students returned to in-person instruction in the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021, there was a reported high incidence of COVID-19 among students. However, the nonstudent population in the county experienced fewer COVID-19 cases per capita than reported in neighboring counties.
“We looked at activity patterns from mobile devices and determined that the nonstudent population near the University restricted their movements during the pandemic more than residents of neighboring counties,” said Bharti.
In the second study, Bharti and the research team found by monitoring vehicular traffic and mobile device use via anonymous, publicly available data in rural central Pennsylvania, the lowest levels of movement occurred during the strictest phase of restrictions.
“Our findings showed high levels of compliance with behavioral interventions, however we also found that increases in movement correlated with increases in COVID-19 cases nine to 18 days later,” Bharti said. “While the findings were not unexpected, we were a little surprised that there weren’t more cases amongst nonstudent residents. Ever after many restrictions were lifted, Centre County residents spent less time outside their homes, which resulted in a huge difference in the number of cases compared to surrounding counties.”
Conversely, there were a large number of cases in the student population, indicating a need for better mitigation strategies. “Much of our student population necessarily have high contact lifestyles due to living in dorms and sharing apartments. We need to find better ways to keep them safe from transmissible pathogens,” said Bharti.
The D4A research findings can help direct mitigation strategies for future outbreaks of disease, having documented that behavior restrictions work if everyone is able to follow them, said the researchers. “We need to better support those in high-risk jobs and find ways for them to be able to stay at home as well. Rural areas like ours have limited health care resources, which magnifies the importance of disease prevention,” Bharti said.
The D4A project is ongoing and an interdisciplinary collaboration among Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute, the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, and the Clinical and Translational Science Institute and includes faculty members from six Penn State colleges. The work was also supported by the Institute for Computational and Data Sciences at Penn State.