Assessment of SARS-CoV-2 Screening Strategies to Permit the Safe Reopening of College Campuses in the United States

JAMA Netw Open. 2020 Jul 1;3(7):e2016818. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.16818.


Importance: The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic poses an existential threat to many US residential colleges; either they open their doors to students in September or they risk serious financial consequences.

Objective: To define severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) screening performance standards that would permit the safe return of students to US residential college campuses for the fall 2020 semester.

Design, setting, and participants: This analytic modeling study included a hypothetical cohort of 4990 students without SARS-CoV-2 infection and 10 with undetected, asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection at the start of the semester. The decision and cost-effectiveness analyses were linked to a compartmental epidemic model to evaluate symptom-based screening and tests of varying frequency (ie, every 1, 2, 3, and 7 days), sensitivity (ie, 70%-99%), specificity (ie, 98%-99.7%), and cost (ie, $10/test-$50/test). Reproductive numbers (Rt) were 1.5, 2.5, and 3.5, defining 3 epidemic scenarios, with additional infections imported via exogenous shocks. The model assumed a symptomatic case fatality risk of 0.05% and a 30% probability that infection would eventually lead to observable COVID-19-defining symptoms in the cohort. Model projections were for an 80-day, abbreviated fall 2020 semester. This study adhered to US government guidance for parameterization data.

Main outcomes and measures: Cumulative tests, infections, and costs; daily isolation dormitory census; incremental cost-effectiveness; and budget impact.

Results: At the start of the semester, the hypothetical cohort of 5000 students included 4990 (99.8%) with no SARS-CoV-2 infection and 10 (0.2%) with SARS-CoV-2 infection. Assuming an Rt of 2.5 and daily screening with 70% sensitivity, a test with 98% specificity yielded 162 cumulative student infections and a mean isolation dormitory daily census of 116, with 21 students (18%) with true-positive results. Screening every 2 days resulted in 243 cumulative infections and a mean daily isolation census of 76, with 28 students (37%) with true-positive results. Screening every 7 days resulted in 1840 cumulative infections and a mean daily isolation census of 121 students, with 108 students (90%) with true-positive results. Across all scenarios, test frequency was more strongly associated with cumulative infection than test sensitivity. This model did not identify symptom-based screening alone as sufficient to contain an outbreak under any of the scenarios we considered. Cost-effectiveness analysis selected screening with a test with 70% sensitivity every 2, 1, or 7 days as the preferred strategy for an Rt of 2.5, 3.5, or 1.5, respectively, implying screening costs of $470, $910, or $120, respectively, per student per semester.

Conclusions and relevance: In this analytic modeling study, screening every 2 days using a rapid, inexpensive, and even poorly sensitive (>70%) test, coupled with strict behavioral interventions to keep Rt less than 2.5, is estimated to maintain a controllable number of COVID-19 infections and permit the safe return of students to campus.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Basic Reproduction Number
  • Betacoronavirus
  • COVID-19
  • Coronavirus Infections / epidemiology
  • Coronavirus Infections / transmission*
  • Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • Disease Transmission, Infectious / prevention & control*
  • Humans
  • Mass Screening* / economics
  • Pandemics
  • Patient Isolation
  • Pneumonia, Viral / epidemiology
  • Pneumonia, Viral / transmission*
  • Risk Assessment* / economics
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Universities / economics
  • Universities / organization & administration*