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Why Virginia colleges have reported vastly different COVID case counts

Why Virginia colleges have reported vastly different COVID case counts


More than 1,500 students at James Madison University have tested positive for the coronavirus in the past two months. Two other universities in the state, Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia, have reported 1,000 cases or more each.

And yet, other large universities in Virginia have claimed dramatically fewer infected students. At VCU, about 300 have tested positive, according to the school’s online dashboard. George Mason and Old Dominion have reported fewer than 100 cases each.

There are numerous factors that begin to explain the discrepancy: the number of tests the schools have administered, the spread of the virus in the community before the students arrived and, of course, the behavior of its students. Data from the schools and the Virginia Department of Health suggest that the colleges with low numbers of cases may not be doing as well as you’d think. And at the same time, the schools with high numbers may not be doing as poorly as you’d think.

“It is probably naive to assume that some large universities didn’t have the social gatherings and outbreaks the others did,” said Dr. Noelle Bissell, director of the New River Health District in southwestern Virginia.

The number of positive cases reported by each school doesn’t tell the whole story, she said. If a university conducts fewer tests, fewer positive results will occur.

George Mason, which has 39,000 students, has conducted 6,000 student tests. VCU, with 29,000 students, has completed about 7,000. UVA, meanwhile, has administered almost 35,000, and Virginia Tech has tested its community more than 21,000 times.

Virginia Tech has an advantage in that it processes its own COVID tests. Most universities sign a contract with a private business to transport their tests to a lab, run them and return the results.

There’s no standard for how colleges count their cases, either. At UVA, only positive tests that occur on campus are reflected in the school’s total number. That means if a UVA student leaves campus, receives a test at a nearby drug store and produces a positive result, that positive test won’t be counted by UVA. Virginia Tech has reported about 1,200 cases at its health center, but Montgomery County, which encompasses the campus, has reported 1,587 cases among individuals age 18-24. The actual number of infected students is likely even higher than that, Bissell said. A substantial number of people aren’t getting tested if they are asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic.

At JMU, every student is counted. Of JMU’s 1,500 positive cases listed on the school’s dashboard, about 60% occurred off campus and were reported to the university by the student.

There is another reason to believe that JMU, with the highest count of infected students in the state, isn’t doing as badly as suggested by the numbers and its temporary closure of campus this semester . The degree of transmission of the virus on campus can reflect the degree of underlying community transmission, said Dr. Gonzalo Bearman, an infectious disease specialist at VCU. If a community that houses a university had a high level of transmission before students arrived, when the students did arrive, the school started at a disadvantage.

“The greater the community transmission, the greater the campus transmission,” Bearman said.

On Aug. 15, before students had arrived on campus, JMU’s community had already experienced a high level of transmission. In Harrisonburg, where JMU is located, 2% of the population had been infected with the virus, a high percentage, according to population estimates by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

Conversely, in Montgomery County, where Virginia Tech is located, only 0.3% of residents had been infected. In Fairfax City, which is adjacent to George Mason’s campus, 0.4% of the population had been infected.

But there’s also reason to believe JMU is doing worse than the numbers suggest. The university has conducted only 3,600 tests since July, fewer than other large colleges in the state.

While testing is an important element of containing the virus on campus, it is just one piece to a college’s virus-containment puzzle. How well a college contact traces, places infected students in isolation, disseminates a steady stream of messaging to students about following safety practices and punishes offenders all have an impact on how much the virus spreads, Bearman said. Last month, Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands said he had learned that testing isn’t a panacea.

“It’s a tool to help the other measures work more efficiently, but you can rely too heavily on it,” Dr. Mitch Rosner, chair of the UVA Department of Medicine, told UVA’s news website.

George Mason green-lighted a “Do your part” campaign to encourage students to follow health guidelines. JMU has investigated 345 students for possible rules violations and has found 189 of them responsible. Two of them have been suspended, a school spokeswoman said. VCU has 307 cases and has found 143 students responsible for noncompliance, a school spokesperson said. Seventy-three cases are still pending.

A spokesperson at UVA declined to provide the number of noncompliance cases, and a Virginia Tech spokesman said the school’s number wouldn’t be compiled until later in the semester.

One of the biggest factors in determining a college’s positive case count is the most unquantifiable: student behavior. When JMU closed its campus just a week after classes began, it cited off-campus social gatherings as a driver of the virus. When Virginia State announced its intention to open campus for the spring of 2021, President Makola Abdullah said that on-campus interaction isn’t as big a worry as what students do when they’re off campus.

Before they moved into dorms throughout the state, most college students were required to be tested. Across all schools, the percent positivity was less than 0.5%, Bissell said. Meaning each student body arrived on campus equally infected. What happened after those students arrived determined the school’s fate.

In Montgomery County, positive cases among children, middle-age adults and older adults are scarce. Of all the county’s cases since the beginning of August — about 1,900 — 85% have come from college-age individuals.


Eric Kolenich writes about higher education, sports, coronavirus and protests for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He joined the newspaper in 2009 after graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in English. (804) 649-6109

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