Tracking COVID-19 in colleges difficult due to lack of uniformity, experts say

Last week, the University of Georgia logged more than 800 coronavirus cases. The second largest public university, Georgia State University, reported three.

While many Georgia colleges publish COVID-19 cases online (to some degree), health experts warn against comparing universities' data.

"One of the most frustrating things about the college data streams is that they are not uniform, and it's sort of this patchwork of information," said Dr. Amber Schmidtke, a microbiologist who is tracking the virus in colleges.

There is not a standardized protocol for how campuses should collect and report cases. The University System of Georgia, the government entity overseeing 26 public universities and colleges, said that is to allow schools to personalize plans uniquely for their communities.

As a result, not all colleges offer testing for asymptomatic students or require individuals to even report positive cases. On top of that, schools publish varying levels of information online.

"It's important that the data be available not just to parents and the university students themselves, but the faculty and staff are being asked to do things that put their lives potentially in danger, and I think they have a right to the most updated data they can be provided," said Schmidtke.

Georgia Tech has been lambasted for its climb in cases, surpassing 800 on Sept. 3 (totaled since March). 

A student-run Instagram page fiercely and consistently criticizes Tech's administration. The social media account frequently references the institute's daily updates, which indicate whether the infected individual is student, staff, Greek life, or on-campus.

It is one of the more detailed summaries of cases at public universities.

In a statement to FOX 5, a Georgia Tech representative wrote, in part, "It is extremely important in this uncertain environment to provide as much accurate information as possible to our community in a timely manner. This transparency protects the students, faculty and staff of Georgia Tech by arming them with the information they need to stay healthy."

Everyone is encouraged to get tested weekly there, symptomatic or not.

Kennesaw State University and the University of Georgia are taking a more general approach in their reports, offering weekly totals.

In the "Frequently Asked Questions" section, a brief two lines summarizes KSU's 130 reported cases from Aug. 22 to Aug. 28.

UGA clocked in 821 new cases last week alone, according to the Dawg Check, blaming privacy concerns for a lack of more detail. The report groups the infected individuals into student and employee columns.

Georgia State University's website boasts a total of three COVID-19 cases in the first two weeks of school, an extremely low number considering its size.

A school representative chalks it up to their large commuter population. GSU typically only houses 10 percent of its student body, and the university said it has about half the number of students living on-campus this year, compared to last.

But it's important to keep in mind, GSU does not require students to report positive cases, and the voluntarily reported cases do not appear to be included in the website's data. Furthermore, the school largely does not offer testing for asymptomatic individuals, aside from its randomized testing program and special cases.

A GSU official told FOX 5's Emilie Ikeda there have been 43 positive tests in the athletics department: 37 student-athletes and 6 athletics staff members. That data is not available on the website, and it is unclear when those cases were record.

student journalist, who submitted an open records request, said there were more than 100 positive cases voluntarily reported to GSU between March 19 and Aug. 14.

TaKia Tinsley, a member of GSU's student government, said, overall, he is optimistic about the school's current track but still questions if the website's data is an accurate depiction of GSU's case count.

"If the university wants the students to be more proactive in their understanding, they just have to level with us," Tinsley said. "If they don't know what's going on, let me know that, don't pretend like you have it all together."

Schmidtke has been working on compiling a centralized list of schools' COVID-19 data. 

She said it's confusing why schools aren't providing more clear information. "When you don't have transparency you start to erode public trust," Schmidtke said.

Georgia Tech, GSU and UNG denied FOX 5's request for an on-camera interview.