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News From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
February 23, 2021

COVID-19 Rates Increased Where In-Person College Classes Were Held

JAMA. 2021;325(8):714. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.0621

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) incidence increased by 56% in counties where colleges held in-person classes after the start of last fall’s school year, the CDC reported.

Geoiff Crimmins/AP Images

As COVID-19 incidence generally declined in US counties in early August 2020, incidence rates increased among young adults aged 18 to 22 years. Such increases have been identified as a driving force of infection among adults older than 60 years, who are at increased risk of severe illness and death. To determine whether large universities’ instructional format—in-person or remote classes—was associated with COVID-19 incidence in the surrounding communities, CDC investigators analyzed data from 101 counties where classes started between July 27 and August 28, 2020.

The data showed that COVID-19 incidence decreased by 6% late last summer and early fall in counties without a large university. In counties where large colleges or universities conducted classes remotely, incidence declined by 17.9%, from 18 to 15 cases per 100 000 population during the period ranging from 3 weeks before classes started to 3 weeks afterward. In counties where universities resumed in-person instruction, incidence climbed from about 15 to 24 cases per 100 000 during the same period.

In addition, mean daily COVID-19 testing increased by 4% in counties with remote classes and by 14% in counties where students attended classes in person. However, testing decreased by 1% in nonuniversity communities. On average, the test positivity rate decreased by nearly 2% in counties with remote instruction and by 0.6% in nonuniversity communities, but the rate increased by 1% in counties with in-person classes.

“College and university administrators should work with local decision-makers and public health officials to strengthen community mitigation,” the authors wrote.