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Credit: Nathan Adler

On Friday, Penn students received a message from university administrators warning of “worrisome trends” in campus-wide COVID-19 cases and suggesting that an unceasing rise in infections could trigger an “Alert Level 3,” which would require all students to quarantine in their residences. The message was certainly important, but for many Penn students, it was surprising; yes, many were aware of infractions against Penn’s COVID-19 policies, but throughout the quiet period the published data and messaging from the university indicated no need for widespread concern. 

In light of Friday’s announcement, College junior Aden Yacobi started a petition on change.org calling on Penn to release more transparent statistics and information regarding COVID-19 on campus. The petition's demands are twofold: “(1) decreasing the lag in reporting statistics on the COVID-19 dashboard and (2) clearly communicating goals of policy,” as stated in its description. “We want the University of Pennsylvania to update the coronavirus dashboard daily instead of doing it in weekly doses,” Yacobi said in an interview. “It’s hard to see a trend because of the large data chunks that they do it in, and it’s not really helpful because of the lag.”

Many COVID-19 data trackers, including those from Virginia Tech and Harvard University, provide daily test and case counts, occasionally with seven-day moving averages. When presented this way, the data provides longitudinal information that is more precise. In its current form, Penn’s official dashboard provides the previous week’s COVID-19 data as a sum, and all prior counts as cumulative since January 3, 2021. Yacobi argues that this level of information is too vague to be of significant value to the community. In fact, at the time of Friday’s message to the community, the case counts in question had not yet been visible to the student body. On Tuesday, however, the data was later released to reveal a staggering 2.22% positivity rate, and 56.9% on-campus isolation availability.

Yacobi’s primary concern is with the university's communication — or lack thereof — with respect to COVID-19 on campus. “I would want more transparency, more information available to students and the public, clear communication of policy goals,” he says. Sending threatening messages without sufficient data to contextualize them comes across as disingenuous and unnecessarily secretive. Likewise, messages without data lack teeth and are unlikely to stir students into action without further information. If we are to make it through this pandemic as a community, the university is obligated to be forthright about cases, trends, and their locations.

Ideally, we should be able to see the following information on a dashboard:

  1. Daily tests administered and positive cases;
  2. Seven-day moving averages to illustrate longitudinal trends;
  3. Breakdown of cases between undergraduate, graduate, and faculty populations;
  4. Cases from on-campus housing locations (delineated by College House) and off-campus housing locations.

This information would give us a better sense of not only how bad the situation is, but also where and among whom. Students living in a particular dorm are obligated to know how safe their own home is, not to mention the dozens of dedicated Residential Advisors and Graduate Associates who risk their health to do their jobs. In an ideal world, students would practice COVID-19 safety regardless of how bad cases are on campus, but unfortunately, we live in a world where students party and flout restrictions because of a perceived invincibility. The only way to counter that sentiment is to show how dire the situation is through better data. “If we knew that a certain positivity rate or increase in positivity rate would cause a campus shutdown, I think that students would work to avoid that, because no one wants that,” says Yacobi. 

Yacobi says that he would want the university to send daily email updates with clear information about cases, trends, and how the student body is doing. He says students should have a clear understanding of how COVID-19 is spreading on campus. Though, he also says he understands if some of his demands are unreasonable, but he urges the university to explain why. “If there are reasons why stuff in the petition can’t be met, it’s fine. We just want that to be communicated and we want it to be transparent.”

Yacobi planned to meet with the manager of @COVIDPenn, Emily Paterson, and the Director of Communications for Wellness, Mary Kate Coghlan, on Wednesday to discuss his petition. “I view this meeting as a starting point and welcome the university interacting with students,” he wrote in an email. “I will go in there with enthusiasm and hope we can help improve transparency and messaging, as well as getting information on how to address the other problems students have since brought up. I look forward to continued interaction with the administration and hope to bring students to the table as the stakeholders that we are.”

We deserve to get a full picture of COVID-19 on campus — not just for our sakes, but for the sake of those in the communities around us. Every Penn student that contracts COVID-19 could interact with someone in a store neighboring campus or visit a friend for a weekend. Before we know it, a cluster of cases on campus becomes a devastating outbreak in West Philadelphia. While clearer metrics are not a robust public health intervention, they can add a layer of psychological pressure on the Penn community to act responsibly, and they also demonstrate a commitment to surrounding communities that Penn truly cares about their wellbeing.

Penn undertook incredible risk in their decision to bring students during a global pandemic, and getting through this is going to require complete transparency, full stop.

VARUN SARASWATHULA is a College junior from Herndon, Va. studying neuroscience and healthcare management. His email is vsaras@sas.upenn.edu.

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