July 31 (UPI) -- Colleges across the United States can safely reopen in the fall, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic if they test students every two days using a rapid, inexpensive kit that is at least 70% accurate, an analysis published Friday by JAMA Network Open found.
Coupled with strict prevention measures that include mask-wearing, social distancing and isolation of confirmed cases, vigilant testing would allow the schools to lower potential spread of the coronavirus to "a modest number of containable infections" on most campuses, the researchers said.
"There is a safe way for students to return to college in the fall, [and] the key element of the plan is screening for [the] virus at high frequency ... and other basic prevention practices," study co-author A. David Paltiel, a professor of health policy and management at Yale School of Public Health, told UPI.
Colleges across the country are implementing plans to allow students to return to campus in the fall, even as several states wrestle with growing case numbers.
As of Friday morning, nearly 4.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases had been confirmed nationwide, and at least 30 states are reporting rising infection rates, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The University of Arizona has been particularly proactive, setting up a contact tracing app that can alert students if they have possibly been exposed to someone on campus with the virus.
The school will implement a phased reopening, with only research labs, medical courses and fine and performing arts courses meeting in person when classes start Aug. 24, and all other courses meeting online.
Dormitory move-ins will proceed as usual, and all students will be tested before moving in, school officials said. A university statement did not indicate how frequently students and staff members would be tested.
To date, 72 positive COVID-19 tests have been reported among students and staff members on campus, according to the university.
"This all depends on the public health conditions and whether students, faculty and staff follow good public health measures," Robert C. Robbins, the university's president, said in the statement Thursday.
"If we see noncompliance or if the public health conditions require [it], we will shut this down" and "return to fully online instruction," he said.
Officials at Florida State University in Tallahassee, meanwhile, plan to reopen campus Aug. 24, although the presence of staff, and in-person classes, will be limited. All students will be tested for COVID-19 prior to moving into their dorms, school officials said in a release Wednesday.
For their analysis, Paltiel and his colleagues created a model with a "hypothetical cohort" of 4,990 students without COVID-19 and 10 with undetected, asymptomatic disease at the start of an abbreviated, 80-day semester.
They then estimated new cases under various testing scenarios based on frequency -- screening every one, two, three and seven days -- and accuracy -- between 70% to 99% -- as well as potential spread of the virus among students, they said.
Under the "best-case scenario" -- in which each infected student passed the virus on to an average of 1.5 other people due to strict infection-control measures and screening performed daily with a test that is 90% accurate -- 66 new cases would arise among the student population, the researchers estimated.
A "baseline scenario" -- in which students would be screened every two days with a test that is 70% accurate -- would yield 243 new cases, assuming each case would pass the virus to an average of 2.5 others, they said.
Screening only students with COVID-19 symptoms -- without strict infection-control measures -- would result in more than 1,000 new cases on campus, or an infection rate of roughly 20%, according to the researchers.
"This sets a high bar -- logistically, financially and behaviorally -- that may be beyond the capacity of many universities, and everything that could go wrong has to go right to avert an outbreak," Paltiel said.
"However, any school that cannot meet these minimum screening standards or maintain uncompromising control over good prevention practices has to ask itself if it has any business reopening."