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How has the return of university students impacted COVID-19 cases?

How has the return of university students impacted COVID-19 cases?

Last month, new and returning university students moved into accommodation in their university towns and cities ready for the new academic year.

Due to the pandemic and most universities delivering much of their content online for the foreseeable future, some students decided to stay at home, but plenty more travelled to their university area, hoping for at least some form of student experience.

In the last month, there have been many headlines about large numbers of students being told to self-isolate due to sharp rises in COVID-19 cases, but what impact has the return of students to towns and cities actually had on the number of COVID-19 cases?

This article focuses in on the latest data regarding weekly COVID-19 cases, looking at what it tells us about COVID-19 in university areas since the return of students.

 

Key Data: The 20 (MSOA) areas in England that reported the highest-number of COVID-19 cases in the latest 7 day period all either contain or are close to a university.

The 20 MSOAs (Middle-Layer Super Output Areas) listed all contain a university or are in some way related to a nearby university. These 20 MSOAs were, in the latest 7 day period, the worst places in the whole of England for the number of COVID-19 cases being reported. 

Middle-Layer Super Output Areas are small geographic areas, sometimes used in the collection and analysis of data and statistics.

Key findings from analysis show that;

  • 5 of the 10 areas with the highest number of cases in England in the latest 7 day period were in Nottingham and either in an area with a university, or bordering an area with a university
  • Cases have risen sharply in all 20 areas since the return of university students in mid-September
  • Universities located in or near the top 20 MSOAs by COVID-19 cases in the latest 7-day period include Nottingham, Nottingham Trent, Durham, Newcastle, Sheffield, Liverpool, Exeter, Manchester, Leeds, Warwick and Lancaster University

Cases have risen sharply since the return of students

The above data alone (without completely considering other variables) does not show that the return of university students has been a significant driving force behind the sharp rise in COVID-19 cases in these areas, however, no other clear explanation would seem to be available for this.

In the first full week of September, the University Park, Lenton Abbey & Jubilee Campus area in Nottingham recorded just 5 cases. In the latest 7-day period, it recorded 582 cases - that's an increase of over 11,000%. 

In the Lancaster University, Galgate & Dolphinholme area, just 4 cases were recorded in the first full week of September - in the latest 7-day period, 148 cases were recorded - that's an increase of 3600%.

Currently, cases are much higher in university areas than in areas without such institutions. If university outbreaks are not carefully controlled, it seems likely that the rate of wider community transmission of the virus could possibly rise much higher and see those most vulnerable potentially infected with the virus.

 

Why are cases so high in university areas?

Over the last month, huge numbers of students have travelled to accommodation in or near their university. Some students will only have travelled a short distance, however, many students may have travelled from the other side of the country, or another country altogether. 

It is considered that people travelling to a different area will inevitably lead to a higher risk of COVID-19 cases being spread. 

A typical university student experience would include a significant amount of social mixing, and while some venues which facilitate this are currently closed, it is largely inevitable that students will, at least to some extent, come into contact with others on university campuses and in student accommodation areas.

 

Are students to blame for COVID cases rising?

Many students feel that they have been unfairly blamed over recent weeks and months for a rise in Coronavirus cases. 

While universities have developed their own measures to try and protect students and staff from the virus, there was no national testing campaign put in place for university students for when they returned to campuses. Some politicians did call for such a campaign or system to be put in place, in the hope that this may reduce the extent of a rise in cases.

While no national campaign was in place, many universities have been testing students themselves or have been working with the Government to setup new testing facilities.

Some students, like other members of the public, have been fined for breaching Coronavirus regulations, though the vast majority have remained compliant. Some students have themselves questioned the logic of being asked to return to campuses during the pandemic and have raised concerns that the measures which have been implemented do not seem to be working. With most students complying with the rules and following official guidance, it would seem unjust to many to blame students themselves for COVID cases rising.

It is also important to note that whilst areas surrounding universities have seen sharp rises in COVID-19 cases, there are also growing outbreaks of the virus in other parts of England. In total, over 2,700 MSOA (Middle-Layer Super Output Areas) in England saw rises in the number of weekly confirmed COVID-19 cases between Week 39 and the latest 7 day period.

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