An Urban Hospital on the Brink Vs. the Officials Sworn to Save It

Illinois and Chicago officials are trying to figure out how to stop a private company from closing a money-losing urban hospital in a poor, underserved Chicago neighborhood.

Trinity Health, a national Catholic tax-exempt chain, wants to close Mercy Hospital and Medical Center on Chicago’s Near South Side by May 31. Last month, in an unusual move, the Illinois Health Facilities & Services Review Board unanimously denied Trinity permission to close the 412-bed facility, which predominantly serves Black and other minority patients on Medicaid.

The board members said they feared the closure would limit access to care for nearly 60,000 South Side residents, forcing them to travel nearly 7 miles to the closest facility with an emergency room, intensive care unit and birthing center. It also would cost the community about 2,000 hospital jobs.

Urban hospitals in low-income areas of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and other cities and suburbs face similar financial squeezes. Inner-city facilities like Mercy struggle to survive on lean payment rates from Medicaid and to compete with financially robust hospitals that mostly serve well-paying, privately insured patients.

So far, no one has come up with a politically and financially viable solution for strengthening safety-net health providers in low-income urban communities. “The sad fact is market location is everything,” said Lawton Robert Burns, a professor of health care management at the University of Pennsylvania, who studied the controversial closure of Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia in 2019. “No offense to poor people, but there are economic factors that hospitals can’t control.”

But it is far from clear that a government board can stop a hospital from going out of business. “It’s really difficult in a capitalist country to tell a private company you have to continue to lose money,” said Dr. Linda Rae Murray, a member of the health facilities board and former Trinity Health board member who teaches health policy at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Trinity, which operates 92 hospitals in 22 states, seems determined to push forward with its plans to close the hospital. It has deep pockets, with $31.9 billion in total assets. It reported revenue of $18.8 billion last year, and a profit of 2.3% in the most recent quarter. Trinity executives told the health facilities board in December that Mercy loses nearly $39 million a year and that they could not find any buyers for the hospital — Chicago’s oldest, chartered in 1852. They also reminded the board that state lawmakers rejected Mercy’s 2019 $1 billion proposal to merge with three other South Side hospitals and build a new hospital facility and several new clinics with $520 million in state aid.

Trinity declined to make anyone available for an interview for this article.

Trinity has said it will try again to get approval to shut Mercy at the facilities review board’s Jan. 26 meeting. It has offered to replace the hospital with a $13 million clinic offering just diagnostic and urgent care — but no primary care physician services. Critics of that proposal say the clinic, while helpful, would not be an adequate replacement for the hospital because it would not provide access to the full range of needed services.

“We can’t have these mega-hospital companies that are getting a property tax exemption for providing charity care closing a safety-net hospital in the middle of a pandemic,” said former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat who spearheaded a 2013 deal to save Roseland Hospital, another embattled facility on Chicago’s South Side. “I’d tell the Trinity executives, ‘You’re not doing this to Chicago. We’ll work with you to put together a bigger deal.’”

The obvious long-term solution is richer Medicaid funding for safety-net hospitals, effective partnerships between public and private providers and firm commitments by financially strong hospital companies, including academic medical centers, to expand services in low-income communities. For instance, some say state and local officials should prod Trinity to use the resources of its Loyola University Medical Center in west suburban Chicago to bolster Mercy.

Hospitals are required to get a certificate of need for closure from the facilities review board, according to a new state law. But state officials’ actions are limited when seeking to enforce a decision to keep a facility open.

The state could levy a fine of up to $10,000 for not complying with the board’s decision, plus an additional $10,000 a month while the hospital continues to operate. But that’s a trivial amount for a big company like Trinity.

The state also could halt Medicaid and other public payments to Mercy. But that would be counterproductive, hastening the hospital’s demise since nearly half of Mercy’s inpatient revenue and 35% of its outpatient revenue comes from Medicaid, according to state data.

A final source of leverage is in Trinity’s ownership of three other hospitals in the Chicago area: Loyola, Gottlieb Memorial Hospital and MacNeal Hospital. The state could threaten Trinity’s property-tax exemption as a charitable organization. That’s an approach favored by Quinn, who cited a previous legal challenge to the tax-exempt status of the Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, Illinois.

No matter what the state does, Trinity can find ways to shut down Mercy. It could argue that even as Mercy is meeting the state requirement to continue to treat patients, it must close critical services like the emergency department or the birthing center because it lacks funding or staff to maintain adequate quality of care, said Juan Morado Jr., a Chicago health care lawyer who formerly served as general counsel for the facilities review board. The new law permits closing only one hospital department every six months.

While the state presses to keep the hospital open, Mercy also could suffer from attrition. When there’s talk of closing a hospital, physicians, nurses and other staffers may start leaving for other jobs. Whether Trinity seeks to refill positions is critical.

“There are things the owner can do to trickle the hospital down to nothing,” said Dr. David Ansell, senior vice president for community health equity at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who opposes shuttering Mercy. “There is a drip, drip, drip of negativity, and at some point people vote with their feet.”

The Chicago area has been through a similar battle recently. Pipeline Health, a private-equity investment firm, bought Westlake Hospital in suburban Melrose Park and two other local hospitals from hospital chain Tenet Healthcare in 2019. Pipeline quickly announced it was closing Westlake, a 230-bed hospital — even though it had promised the state it would keep it open for at least two years.

That controversial move prompted the Illinois legislature to give the facilities review board new authority to deny permission for future hospital closures, which the board lacked for Westlake.

Yet, the Westlake saga may point to a better solution for Mercy. In early 2020, the state and federal governments renovated the Westlake facility so it could be used as an overflow site for covid-19 patients. It wasn’t needed, but the updates led to strong interest from companies in purchasing and reopening the hospital, particularly for behavioral health inpatient services.

State Rep. Kathleen Willis, a Democrat who co-sponsored the 2019 bill to let the facilities review board say no to hospital closures, said a deal to buy and reopen Westlake likely will be announced within the next few weeks.

Any deal to save Mercy likely will require more money from Trinity, more commitment from other providers to offer a full range of hospital and medical services in the area, and significant increases in state and federal funding.

“Every hospital CEO has to worry about the bottom line of their business,” Ansell said. “But big organizations like Trinity need to come up with a better solution than the wholesale shutdown of an anchor institution that will leave communities bereft.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Illinois, primer estado en ofrecer cobertura médica a adultos mayores indocumentados

Como jefa de enfermería en uno de los hospitales más concurridos de la red de seguridad de atención médica de Chicago, Raquel Prendkowski ha sido testigo del devastador número de víctimas que COVID-19 ha causado entre los residentes más vulnerables de la ciudad, incluyendo a personas que no tienen seguro médico por su estatus migratorio.

Algunos llegan tan enfermos que van directo a cuidados intensivos. Muchos no sobreviven.

“Vivimos una pesadilla constante”, dijo Prendkowski mientras trataba a pacientes con coronavirus en el Hospital Mount Sinai, fundado a principios del siglo XX para atender a los inmigrantes más pobres. “Ojalá salgamos pronto de esto”.

La enfermera cree que algunas muertes, y mucho sufrimiento, podrían haberse evitado si estas personas hubieran tenido un tratamiento regular para todo tipo de condiciones crónicas —asma, diabetes, enfermedades del corazón— que pueden empeorar COVID-19.

Y ahora se siente esperanzada.

En medio del brote del mortal virus que ha afectado de manera desproporcionada a las comunidades hispanas, Illinois se convirtió recientemente en el primer estado de la nación en extender el seguro médico público a todos los adultos mayores no ciudadanos de bajos ingresos, incluso si son indocumentados.

Defensores de los inmigrantes esperan que inspire a otros estados a hacer lo mismo. De hecho, legisladores demócratas de California están presionando para expandir su Medicaid a todos los inmigrantes indocumentados del estado.

“Hacer esto durante la pandemia muestra nuestro compromiso con la expansión y ampliación del acceso a la atención de salud. Es un gran primer paso”, señaló Graciela Guzmán, directora de campaña de Healthy Illinois, que promueve la cobertura universal en el estado.

Muchos inmigrantes indocumentados sin cobertura de salud no van al médico. Ese fue el caso de Victoria Hernández, una limpiadora de casas de 68 años que vive en West Chicago, Illinois. La mujer, nativa de la Ciudad de México dijo que, cuando no tenía seguro, simplemente no iba al médico.

Soportaba cualquier dolencia hasta que encontró un programa de caridad que la ayudó a  tratar su prediabetes. Dijo que tiene la intención de inscribirse en el nuevo plan estatal una vez que tenga más información.

“Estoy muy agradecida por el nuevo programa”, explicó a través de un traductor que trabaja para DuPage Health Coalition, una organización sin fines de lucro que coordina la atención de caridad para personas sin seguro médico como Hernández en el condado de DuPage, el segundo más poblado del estado. “Sé que ayudará a mucha gente como yo. Sé que tendrá buenos resultados, muy, muy buenos resultados”.

Primero, Healthy Illinois intentó ampliar los beneficios de Medicaid a todos los inmigrantes de bajos ingresos, pero los legisladores decidieron empezar con un programa más pequeño, que cubre a adultos mayores de 65 años o más que son indocumentados, o que han sido residentes permanentes, tienen tarjeta verde, por menos de cinco años (este grupo no califica para seguro de salud auspiciado por el gobierno).

Los participantes deben tener ingresos que estén en o por debajo del nivel de pobreza federal, que es de $12,670 para un individuo o $17,240 para una pareja. Cubre servicios como visitas al hospital y al médico, medicamentos recetados, y atención dental y oftalmológica (aunque no estancias en centros de enfermería), sin costo para el paciente.

La nueva norma continúa la tendencia de expandir la cobertura de salud del gobierno a los inmigrantes sin papeles.

Illinois fue el primer estado que cubrió la salud de niños indocumentados y también los transplantes de órganos. Otros estados y el Distrito de Columbia lo hicieron después.

El año pasado, California fue el primero en ofrecer cobertura pública a los adultos indocumentados, cuando amplió la elegibilidad para su programa Medi-Cal a todos los residentes de bajos ingresos menores de 26 años.

Según la ley federal, las personas indocumentadas generalmente no son elegibles para Medicare, Medicaid que no es de emergencia y el mercado de seguros de salud de la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio (ACA). Los estados que ofrecen cobertura a esta población lo hacen usando sólo fondos estatales.

Se estima que en Illinois viven 3,986 adultos mayores indocumentados, según un estudio del Centro Médico de la Universidad de Rush y el grupo de demógrafos de Chicago Rob Paral & Associates; y se espera que el número aumente a 55,144 para 2030. El informe también encontró que el 16% de los inmigrantes de Illinois de 55 años o más viven en la situación de pobreza, en comparación con el 11% de la población nacida en el país.

Dado que la administración saliente de Trump ha promovido duras medidas migratorias, sectores del activismo pro inmigrante temen que haya miedo a inscribirse en el nuevo programa porque podría afectar la capacidad de obtener la residencia o la ciudadanía en el fututo, y trabajan para asegurarles que no lo hará.

“Illinois cuenta con un legado de ser un estado que acepta al recién llegado y de proteger la privacidad de los inmigrantes”, señaló Andrea Kovach, abogada que trabaja en equidad en la salud en el Shriver Center for Poverty Law en Chicago.

Se espera que la normativa cubra inicialmente de 4,200 a 4,600 inmigrantes mayores, a un costo aproximado de entre $46 millones a $50 millones al año, según John Hoffman, vocero del Departamento de Salud y Servicios Familiares de Illinois.

Algunos representantes estatales republicanos criticaron la expansión de la cobertura, diciendo que era imprudente hacerlo en un momento en que las finanzas de Illinois sufren por la pandemia. En una declaración condenando el presupuesto estatal de este año, el Partido Republicano de Illinois lo denominó “atención de la salud gratuito para los inmigrantes ilegales”.

Pero los defensores de la nueva política sostienen que muchos inmigrantes sin papeles pagan impuestos sin ser elegibles para programas como Medicare y Medicaid, y que gastar por adelantado en cuidados preventivos ahorra dinero, a largo plazo, al reducir el número de personas que esperan para buscar tratamiento hasta que es una emergencia.

Para Delia Ramírez, representante estatal de Illinois, ampliar la cobertura de salud a todos los adultos mayores de bajos ingresos es personal. A la demócrata de Chicago la inspira su tío, un inmigrante de 64 años que no tiene seguro.

Dijo que intentó que la legislación cubriera a las personas de 55 años o más, ya que la gran mayoría de los indocumentados no son personas mayores (señaló que muchos de los inmigrantes mayores —2,7 millones, según estimaciones del gobierno— obtuvieron el estatus legal con la ley de amnistía federal de 1986).

Un mayor número de inmigrantes más jóvenes también pueden estar sin seguro. En los Centros de Salud Esperanza, uno de los mayores proveedores de atención médica para inmigrantes de Chicago, el 31% de los pacientes de 65 años o más carece de cobertura, en comparación con el 47% de los de 60 a 64 años, según Jeffey McInnes, que supervisa el acceso de los pacientes a las clínicas.

Ramírez dijo que su tío la llamó después de ver las noticias sobre la nueva legislación en la televisión en español. Contó que su tío ha vivido en el país por cuatro décadas y ha trabajado para que sus cuatro hijos fueran a la universidad. También padece asma, diabetes e hipertensión, lo que lo hace de alto riesgo para COVID-19.

“Yo le dije: ‘Tío, todavía no. Pero cuando cumplas 65 años, finalmente tendrás atención médica, si es que aún no hemos conseguido legalizarte”, recordó Ramírez, emocionada, durante una reciente entrevista telefónica.

“Así que es un recordatorio para mí de que, en primer lugar, fue una gran victoria para nosotros y ha significado la vida o una segunda oportunidad de vida para muchas personas”, dijo. “Pero también significa que todavía tenemos un largo camino por recorrer para hacer de la atención de salud un verdadero derecho humano en el estado, y en la nación”.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Homeless Shelters Grapple With COVID Safety as Cold Creeps In

CHICAGO — Ben Barnes has slept in abandoned buildings, hallways and alleys. For the past year or so, he’s been staying at the city’s largest homeless shelter, Pacific Garden Mission, in the shadows of the famous skyline.

“I’ve always considered myself homeless because I don’t have a home,” he said on a recent crisp, fall day in the shelter’s sun-splashed courtyard. But he’s fortunate, said Barnes, 44. He’s never had to sleep outside when it was below zero or snowy. He always found a friend’s place, building or shelter to crash in. He knows others aren’t so lucky.

As winter approaches, hundreds — perhaps thousands — of people in this city of nearly 3 million are living on the streets: some in encampments, others hopping from corner to corner. And the numbers could grow without more federal aid and protections amid economic pressures from the pandemic.

This year, the coronavirus has forced homeless shelters to limit the number of beds they can offer. Pacific Garden Mission, for instance, is operating at roughly half its normal capacity of 740. And COVID-19 cases are rising as temperatures drop.

“What happens if we’re in the midst of a pandemic and a polar vortex happens?” said Doug Schenkelberg, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “We’re trying to keep the contagion from spreading and keep people from dealing with hypothermia. Is there the infrastructure in place that can handle that type of dual crisis?”

Cold-weather cities across the nation are seeking creative ways to cautiously shelter homeless people this winter. Exposure to the elements kills individuals staying outside every year, so indoor refuges can be lifesaving. But fewer options exist nowadays, as coronavirus concerns limit access to libraries, public recreation facilities and restaurants. And in official shelters, safety precautions — spacing out beds and chairs, emphasizing masks and hand-washing, testing — are critical.

“The homeless check off most boxes in terms of being the most susceptible and most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic, and most likely to spread and most likely to die from it,” said Neli Vazquez Rowland, founder of A Safe Haven Foundation, a Chicago nonprofit that has been operating a “medical respite” isolation facility for homeless individuals with the coronavirus.

Demand for shelter could grow. Stimulus checks helped stave off some of the pandemic’s initial economic pain, but Congress has stalled on additional relief packages. And though the Trump administration has ordered a moratorium on evictions for tenants who meet certain conditions through the end of the year, a group of landlords is suing to stop the ban. Some states have their own prohibitions on evictions, but only Illinois, Minnesota and Kansas do in the Midwest.

At the Guest House of Milwaukee, a publicly funded homeless shelter in Wisconsin, the pandemic complicates an already challenging situation.

“We’re like many communities. We never really have completely enough space for everybody who is in need of shelter,” said Cindy Krahenbuhl, its executive director. “The fact that we’ve had to reduce capacity, and all shelters have, has created even more of a burden on the system.”

She said outreach teams plan to connect individuals living outside with an open bed — whether at a shelter, a hotel or an emergency facility for homeless people at risk for COVID — and get them started with case management.

“The reality is we’ve got to make it happen. We’ve got to have space for folks because it’s a matter of life and death. You cannot be outside unsheltered in this environment too long,” said Rob Swiers, executive director of the New Life Center in Fargo, North Dakota, where the average high in January is 18 degrees.

His shelter, Fargo’s largest, plans to use an insulated, heated warehouse to provide roomy sanctuary for clients.

In Minnesota’s Ramsey County, home to St. Paul, an estimated 311 people are living on the streets, compared with “dozens” at this time in 2019, according to Max Holdhusen, the county’s interim manager of housing stability. The area just had a record snowfall for so early in the year.

The county has been using hotel rooms to make up for the reduction in shelter beds, and recently agreed to lease an old hospital to shelter an additional 100 homeless people.

The city of Chicago has set up emergency shelters in two unused public school buildings to replace beds lost to social distancing. As it does every winter, the city will also operate warming centers across Chicago, although this year with precautions such as spacing and masking.

In September, the city directed more than $35 million in funding — mostly from the federal CARES Act for coronavirus relief — to an “expedited housing” program aiming to get more than 2,500 people housed in the next few years. The initiative plans to financially incentivize landlords to take risks on renters they might normally avoid, such as those with criminal histories or poor credit. The nonprofit in charge, All Chicago, is also hosting “accelerated moving events,” in which its staffers descend on a shelter, encampment or drop-in center and work to house everyone in that facility.

“In the ideal world, we would have permanent housing for them,” said Dr. David Ansell, senior vice president of community health equity at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. “That is the only way we can protect people’s health. That’s the fundamental health issue. It’s a fundamental racial justice issue. It’s a fundamental social justice issue.”

Even though Black people make up only a third of Chicago’s population, they account for roughly three-fourths of those who are homeless, according to the city’s count.

Dr. Thomas Huggett, a family physician with Lawndale Christian Health Center on the city’s largely impoverished West Side, also called safely sheltering and housing people this winter a racial equity issue.

“We know that people who are African American have a higher prevalence of hypertension, of diabetes, of obesity, of smoking, of lung issues,” he said. “So they are hit harder with those predisposing conditions that make it more likely that if you get coronavirus, you’re going to have a serious case of it.”

Then add the cold. Dr. Stockton Mayer, an infectious disease specialist from the University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago, said hypothermia doesn’t increase the chances of contracting the virus but could aggravate symptoms.

As of Sept. 30, according to All Chicago, 778 people were unsheltered in the city. However, that number includes only people who are enrolled in homelessness services, and other estimates are even higher.

Some homeless people who plan to live outside this winter said they worry about staying warm, dry and healthy in the age of COVID-19. Efren Parderes, 48, has been on the streets of Chicago since he lost his restaurant job and rented room early in the pandemic. But he doesn’t want to go to a shelter. He’s concerned about catching the coronavirus and bedbugs, and doesn’t want to have to obey curfews.

He recently asked other unsheltered people what they do to keep warm during the winter. Their advice: Locate a spot that blocks the wind or snow, bundle up with many layers of clothing, sleep in a sleeping bag and use hand warmers.

“This is going to be the first time I’ll be out when it’s really cold,” he said after spending a largely sleepless night in the chilly October rain.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Swab, Spit, Stay Home? College Coronavirus Testing Plans Are All Over the Map

Yousuf El-Jayyousi, a junior engineering student at the University of Missouri, wanted guidance and reassurance that it would be safe to go back to school for the fall semester. He tuned into a pair of online town halls organized by the university hoping to find that.

He did not.

What he got instead from those town halls last month was encouragement to return to class at the institution affectionately known as Mizzou. The university, in Columbia, would be testing only people with symptoms, and at that point, the university said people who test positive off campus were under no obligation to inform the school.

“It feels like the university doesn’t really care whether we get sick or not,” said El-Jayyousi, who is scheduled for two in-person classes, and lives at home with his parents and 90-year-old grandmother.

He’s seen the studies from researchers at Yale and Harvard that suggest testing needs to be much more widespread. He asked his instructors if he could join lectures remotely once classes begin Monday. One was considering it; the other rejected it.

“It was kind of very dismissive, like ‘so what?’” El-Jayyousi said.

But it’s an enormous “so what?” packed with fear and unknowns for Jayyousi and some 20 million other students enrolled in some level of postsecondary education in America, if they are not already online only.

As with the uncoordinated and chaotic national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education has no clear guidance or set of standards to adhere to from the federal government or anywhere else. Policies for reentry onto campuses that were abruptly shut in March are all over the map.

Hundreds Undecided

According to the College Crisis Initiative, or C2i, a project of Davidson College that monitors how higher ed is responding to the pandemic, there is nothing resembling a common approach. Of 2,958 institutions it follows, 151 were planning to open fully online, 729 were mostly online and 433 were taking a hybrid approach. Just 75 schools were insisting on students attending fully in person, and 614 were aiming to be primarily in-person. Some 800 others were still deciding, just weeks before instruction was to start.

The decisions often have little correlation with the public health advisories in the region. Mizzou, which is in an area with recent COVID spikes, is holding some in-person instruction and has nearly 7,000 students signed up to live in dorms and other university-owned housing. Harvard, in a region with extremely low rates of viral spread, has opted to go all online and allowed students to defer a year.

The specific circumstances colleges and universities face are as much determined by local fiscal and political dictates as by medicine and epidemiology. It is often unclear who is making the call. So it’s every-student-for-herself to chart these unknown waters, even as students (or their families) have written tuition checks for tens of thousands of dollars and signed leases for campus and off-campus housing.

And the risks — health, educational and financial — boomerang back on individual students: Two weeks after University of North Carolina students, as instructed, returned to the flagship campus in Chapel Hill with the promise of at least some in-person learning, all classes went online. Early outbreaks surged from a few students to more than 130 in a matter of days. Most undergrads have about a week to clear out of their dorms.

“It’s really tough,” said neuroscience major Luke Lawless, 20. “Chapel Hill is an amazing place, and as a senior it’s tough to know that my time’s running out — and the virus only adds to that.”

Location, Location, Location

C2i’s creator, Davidson education Assistant Professor Chris Marsicano, said the extreme diversity of approaches comes from the sheer diversity of schools, the penchant of many to follow the leads of more prestigious peers, and local politics.

“Some states have very strong and stringent mask requirements. Some have stronger stay-at-home orders. Others are sort of leaving it up to localities. So the confluence of politics, institutional isomorphism — that imitation — and different needs that the institutions have are driving the differences,” Marsicano said.

Location matters a lot, too, Marsicano said, pointing to schools like George Washington University and Boston University in urban settings where the environment is beyond the control of the school, versus a place like the University of the South in remote, rural Sewanee, Tennessee, where 90% of students will return to campus.

“It’s a lot easier to control an outbreak if you are a fairly isolated college campus than if you are in the middle of a city,” Marsicano said.

Student behavior is another wild card, Marsicano said, since even the best plans will fail if college kids “do something stupid, like have a massive frat party without masks.”

“You’ve got student affairs professionals across the country who are screaming at the top of their lungs, ‘We can’t control student behavior when they go off campus’” Marsicano said.

Another factor is a vacuum at the federal level. Although the Department of Education says Secretary Betsy DeVos has held dozens of calls with governors and state education superintendents, there’s no sign of an attempt to offer unified guidance to colleges beyond a webpage that links to relaxed regulatory requirements and anodyne fact sheets from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on preventing viral spread.

Even the money that the department notes it has dispensed — $30 billion from Congress’ CARES Act — is weighted toward K-12 schools, with about $13 billion for higher education, including student aid.

The U.S. Senate adjourned last week until Sept. 8, having never taken up a House-passed relief package that included some $30 billion for higher education. A trio of Democratic senators, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is calling for national reporting standards on college campuses.

No Benchmarks

Campus communities with very different levels of contagion are making opposite calls about in-person learning. Mizzou’s Boone County has seen more than 1,400 confirmed COVID cases after a spike in mid-July. According to the Harvard Global Health Institute’s COVID risk map, Boone has accelerated spread, with 14 infections per day per 100,000 people. The institute advises stay-at-home orders or rigorous testing and tracing at such rates of infection. Two neighboring counties were in the red zone recently, with more than 25 cases per day per 100,000 people. Mizzou has left it up to deans whether classes will meet in person, making a strong argument for face-to-face instruction.

Meanwhile, Columbia University in New York City opted for all online instruction, even though the rate of infection there is a comparatively low 3.8 cases per day per 100,000 people.

Administrators at Mizzou considered and rejected mandatory testing. “All that does is provide one a snapshot of the situation,” University of Missouri system President Mun Choi said in one of the town halls.

Mizzou has an in-house team that will carry out case investigation and contact tracing with the local health department. This week, following questions from the press and pressure from the public, the university announced students will be required to report any positive COVID test to the school.

Who Do You Test? When?

CDC guidance for higher education suggests there’s not enough data to know whether testing everyone is effective, but some influential researchers, such as those at Harvard and Yale, disagree.

“This virus is subject to silent spreading and asymptomatic spreading, and it’s very hard to play catch-up,” said Yale professor David Paltiel, who studies public health policy. “And so thinking that you can keep your campus safe by simply waiting until students develop symptoms before acting, I think, is a very dangerous game.”

Simulation models conducted by Paltiel and his colleagues show that, of all the factors university administrators can control — including the sensitivity and specificity of COVID-19 tests — the frequency of testing is most important.

He’s “painfully aware” that testing everyone on campus every few days sets a very high bar — logistically, financially, behaviorally — that may be beyond what most schools can reach. But he says the consequences of reopening campuses without those measures are severe, not just for students, but for vulnerable populations among school workers and in the surrounding community.

“You really have to ask yourself whether you have any business reopening if you’re not going to commit to an aggressive program of high-frequency testing,” he said.

The Fighting — And Testing — Illini

Some institutions that desperately want students to return to campus are backing the goal with a maximal approach to safety and testing.

About a four-hour drive east along the interstates from Mizzou is the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose sports teams are known as the Fighting Illini.

Weeks ago, large white tents with signs reading “Walk-Up COVID-19 Testing” have popped up across campus; there students take a simple saliva test.

“This seems to be a lot easier than sticking a cotton swab up your nose,” graduate student Kristen Muñoz said after collecting a bit of her saliva in a plastic tube and sealing it in a bag labeled “Biohazard.”

In just a few hours, she got back her result: negative.

The school plans to offer free tests to the 50,000 students expected to return this month, as well as some 11,000 faculty and staff members.

“The exciting thing is, because we can test up to 10,000 per day, it allows the scientist to do what’s really the best for trying to protect the community as opposed to having to cut corners, because of the limitations of the testing,” said University of Illinois chemist Martin Burke, who helped develop the campus’s saliva test, which received emergency use authorization from the federal Food and Drug Administration this week.

The test is similar to one designed by Yale and funded by the NBA that cleared the FDA hurdle just before the Illinois test. Both Yale and Illinois hope aggressive testing will allow most undergraduate students to live on campus, even though most classes will be online.

University of Illinois epidemiologist Becky Smith said they are following data that suggest campuses need to test everyone every few days because the virus is not detectable in infected people for three or four days.

“But about two days after that, your infectiousness peaks,” she said. “So, we have a very small window of time in which to catch people before they have done most of the infection that they’re going to be doing.”

Campus officials accepted Smith’s recommendation that all faculty, staffers and students participating in any on-campus activities be required to get tested twice a week.

Illinois can do that because its test is convenient and not invasive, which spares the campus from using as much personal protective equipment as the more invasive tests require, Burke said. And on-site analysis avoids backlogs at public health and commercial labs.

Muddled in the Middle

Most other colleges fall somewhere between the approaches of Mizzou and the University of Illinois, and many of their students still are uncertain how their fall semester will go.

At the University of Southern California, a private campus of about 48,500 students in Los Angeles, officials had hoped to have about 20% of classes in person — but the county government scaled that back, insisting on tougher rules for reopening than the statewide standards.

If students eventually are allowed back, they will have to show a recent coronavirus test result that they obtained on their own, said Dr. Sarah Van Orman, chief health officer of USC Student Health.

They will be asked to do daily health assessments, such as fever checks, and those who have been exposed to the virus or show symptoms will receive a rapid test, with about a 24-hour turnaround through the university medical center’s lab. “We believe it is really important to have very rapid access to those results,” Van Orman said.

At California State University — the nation’s largest four-year system, with 23 campuses and nearly a half-million students — officials decided back in May to move nearly all its fall courses online.

“The first priority was really the health and safety of all of the campus community,” said Mike Uhlenkamp, spokesperson for the CSU Chancellor’s Office. About 10% of CSU students are expected to attend some in-person classes, such as nursing lab courses, fine art and dance classes, and some graduate classes.

Uhlenkamp said testing protocols are being left up to each campus, though all are required to follow local safety guidelines. And without a medical campus in the system, CSU campuses do not have the same capacity to take charge of their own testing, as the University of Illinois is doing.

For students who know they won’t be on campus this fall, there is regret at lost social experiences, networking and hands-on learning so important to college.

But the certainty also brings relief.

“I don’t think I would want to be indoors with a group of, you know, even just a handful of people, even if we have masks on,” said Haley Gray, a 28-year-old graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley starting the second year of her journalism program.

She knows she won’t have access to Berkeley’s advanced media labs or the collaborative sessions students experience there. And she said she realized the other day she probably won’t just sit around the student lounge and strike up unexpected friendships.

“That’s a pretty big bummer but, you know, I think overall we’re all just doing our best, and given the circumstances, I feel pretty OK about it,” she said.

This story is part of a partnership that includes KBIA, Illinois Public Media, Side Effects Public Media, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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