New dashboard tracks coronavirus impact on the University community

By Maya Bell

New dashboard tracks coronavirus impact on the University community

By Maya Bell
The University of Miami COVID-19 Dashboard, released Monday, provides a snapshot on testing, positive results, students in quarantine or isolation, and hospitalizations.

In an effort to provide accurate information about its efforts to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, the University of Miami launched its own COVID-19 Dashboard on Monday, enabling the entire ’Canes community and the public to track four key indicators about the pandemic on its campuses. 

With an easy-to-understand display, users of the online tool can check the week-to-date number of new positive tests among members of the University community, the number of students who are either in isolation or quarantine, the number of new tests performed, and the number of new hospitalizations. 

By selecting a campus and hovering over information displayed in one bar graph, users also can check the daily count of new positive cases for students and for faculty and staff by location. Another bar graph shows how many students tested positive and are in isolation, how many are quarantined because they were exposed to the virus, and whether they live on or off campus. 

“We are making decisions for the entire community, but members of the community also need to make their own decisions, and they need to make decisions based on information,” said President Julio Frenk, explaining why the publicly facing dashboard was one of his priorities. “The worst you can do in an emergency is not communicate truthfully because that gets people much more anxious than knowing what is actually happening.” 

The dashboard is updated every day with data collected from the University’s COVID-19 testing centers and contact tracing; Housing and Residential Life, which is managing students in isolation or quarantine; and UHealth, which is treating hospitalized patients at UHealth Tower. As such, members of the University community are strongly encouraged to utilize University testing centers and the array of other COVID-19-related services and resources the University has established should they fall ill with COVID-like symptoms or suspect exposure to the virus. 

“Our preference is for anybody who is University faculty, staff, students, or vendors to get tested at one of our testing sites,” said Erin Kobetz, vice provost for research who helped oversee the development of the dashboard with numerous collaborators across the University. “There are a number of reasons why we want the tests to be done in-house. One, we can guarantee a quick turnaround time. Two, positive tests will immediately trigger contact tracing, as well a response from facilities and operations. And for students, we can ensure those in residential housing are in isolation or quarantine, as needed.”

That system was on full display last week, when the first cases of coronavirus were reported at a residence hall on campus, which was not unexpected. As Frenk said in a message issued Monday, “It would have been unrealistic to assume that there would be no cases of COVID-19 this fall on our campus or anywhere else in the world. What we can accomplish if we all work together is avoiding the type of broad outbreak that would require us to shut down campus.’’

According to the dashboard’s inaugural data, the University tested 2,627 students, faculty, staff, and University vendors last week, between Aug. 16 and Aug. 22. Of those tested, 141 people, most of them students, tested positive. It also shows 59 students were placed in isolation, and another 98 were quarantined because of their potential exposure to an infected person. Only one faculty or staff member was hospitalized.

The dashboard lets users slice and dice the results by campus, and by whether students reside on campus or off. It shows the first two positive cases in residential housing occurred on Tuesday, Aug. 18, with additional positive tests on campus popping up on Thursday.

After four students in Hecht Residential College tested positive by Thursday, University health officials and Housing and Residential Life moved to quarantine other students on two floors in Hecht’s McDonald Tower. And they removed students who tested positive or showed symptoms and placed them in isolation.

The data shows additional positive cases were reported for students residing on campus later on Aug. 20, Aug. 21, and Aug. 22—for a total of 21 residential students. The majority of positives were for students living off campus, or those on the medical campus. Six positive cases involved faculty or staff members.

While 141 positive cases in a single week may sound alarming, Frenk said, given the 2,627 tests performed, it actually reflects a moderate rate. “No number is good, but it is not surprising,” he said. “If you look at the number of tests, those that gave a positive result are still a relatively low proportion.” 

He also indicated that the number may reflect “early expressions of unacceptable behavior that some students engaged in,” but thanks to a comprehensive system of testing, tracking, and tracing, the University quickly isolated the infected students, quarantined those who were directly exposed, and notified those who were in close contact and could be at risk. 

Given the dashboard’s laser focus on the University community, Kobetz said the dashboard should help reduce anxiety in a period of great uncertainty. As she noted, the data points help paint a comprehensive picture of what is happening specifically at the University, apart from the broader community, where the data can be even more alarming.

She noted, for example, that Miami-Dade County Public Schools system has announced that it would not resume in-person classes until the broader community’s positivity rate dropped below 10 percent. But, she said, the risk of transmission in the public school setting is far different from the University, given all of the thought that has gone into classroom design, air flow, infection control routines, and the robust system for testing, tracking, and tracing symptomatic individuals—a system that, in the coming weeks, will include the random testing of hundreds of asymptomatic students, faculty, and staff to help determine how widespread the infection rate is. 

 “There is comfort in understanding the situation,” she said. “When there is not information exchange, we as human beings create our own narrative of what we think the truth of the situation is, and now anybody can assess that in real time.” 

The dashboard was created in collaboration with the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, the Office of Emergency Management, University of Miami Information Technology, and UHealth. It was designed by visualization experts at the Miller School of Medicine.