WU launches COVID dashboard monitoring cases in the Danforth campus community

Anirudh Kesanapally | Contributing Reporter

Washington University began the new year with the launch of its COVID-19 dashboard for Danforth campus faculty, staff and students, Sept. 14. The dashboard, which currently only shows entry testing, is updated twice per week and covers the total amount of tests given, positive cases and the positive percentage since Aug. 31. Another section shows the number of cumulative cases amongst the Danforth campus community since Aug. 1.

Nathalie Austin | Student Life

Although the dashboard provides enough information to recognize the University’s relatively strong performance against the COVID-19 pandemic so far, a quick comparison with the dashboards of peer institutions reveals that Washington University’s available data is limited. Vanderbilt University, for example, provides its students with an interactive dashboard that details tests and cases in both a weekly and daily manner. Rice University’s dashboard even publishes information about its quarantining and “in-isolation” campus bodies.

Criticism of the University’s entry dashboard overlaps with its overall COVID response. A page manager of WashU Covidiots—a student-run social media page that seeks to feature individuals who break COVID guidelines—argued that the account’s “vigilante approach is necessary” because the University “has not had effective messaging especially surrounding when students need to abide by certain guidelines.”

Under the “WashU Together” reopening plan, the University has welcomed students back to campus later than many other universities this year and has had more time to curate its COVID-19 dashboard. For Danforth community members, a more comprehensive dashboard serves as an important tool for recognizing the overall health and safety of campus life. Even for members of the University community who are not present on campus, a more transparent dashboard can be helpful for gauging their decisions to come back to campus next semester.

Zachary Kuo, a current off-campus freshman, said that he will take into account the information the dashboard provides when deciding whether or not to come back for spring semester, adding that he was satisfied with the dashboard’s transparency.

“The current COVID-19 dashboard is nice because, at least compared to stories from other colleges where I have friends and relatives attending, this is pretty transparent,” Kuo said.

However, Kuo also mentioned that dashboards of other institutions like Vanderbilt, Rice and Harvard were “much more detailed.”

This mixed response is exactly what Dr. Steven J. Lawrence expected students and community members to notice when comparing Washington University’s dashboard with other schools. As an associate professor of medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine, specializing in infectious diseases, Lawrence acted as a liaison between the Danforth and Medical campuses during this pandemic. Through his essential work, he gained a fundamental understanding of not only the entry dashboard, but also the University’s overall COVID-19 response.

“The current dashboard is anemic and not too flashy compared to others,” Lawrence said. “[But] if the University were able to recreate more comprehensive dashboards and superimpose our entry testing data onto them, the dashboard won’t be meaningful for anyone.”

Lawrence explained that this initial dashboard is just the snapshot of the University’s baseline COVID-19 data.

“Within the first week of classes, there isn’t an opportunity to even see what kind of transmission is happening, and until surveillance testing, there is no room to show change or detail over time,” Lawrence said.

The expanded detail Lawrence referred to could potentially include the information required to understand how good the Danforth campus has been at minimizing the spread of cases over time. Some of these details will include dividing cases in a daily and weekly manner similar to what other universities are already publishing.

“In lieu of the concern around transparency some students may have, is that we can be sure that every single positive case on campus is evident in that dashboard and once surveillance testing begins, the new dashboard will become more comprehensive,” Lawrence said.

The positivity rate shown in the dashboard is the greatest sign of the overall health of the Danforth campus, and this information only requires the cumulative amount of testing and positive cases. As more data is made available to the University, more comprehensive features can be added to the dashboard, according to Lawrence.

With the entry testing period completed on Sept. 25 and the refreshed dashboard to be published in the coming days, the surveillance period will be the next hurdle for the Washington University community. Current dashboard data has put the Danforth campus community with only 12 positive cases (positivity rate 0.2%) since Aug. 31, below what Dr. Lawrence and other professionals in the University’s pandemic response team had expected. However, these positive results are by no means guaranteed.

“In no way should we let our guard down now and stop being vigilant,” Lawrence said. “We have an opportunity right here to make it through the semester with continuous operations. If everyone—faculty, staff and students—does their part, I don’t believe there will be any major disruptions.”

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