Keene State College’s coronavirus testing dashboard provided an update this week on how the institution — and by extension, perhaps, the surrounding city — is faring since students were welcomed back to Keene. The news: five new positive tests in the past two weeks. Added to the seven previously reported cases, that’s an even dozen in the month since the campus opened to returning students.
That may sound alarming — especially compared to the state Department of Health and Human Services’ numbers, which have consistently showed Keene as having four or fewer cases throughout the summer. (Somewhat disturbingly, the state’s numbers still showed that, even as Keene State reported the five new cases, all in the city.)
But keep in mind another number on the Keene State dashboard: 0.07 percent. That’s the percentage of tests administered in the past two weeks that have come up positive. Five positives in more than 7,000 tests; all of the 2,871 students and 760 staff being tested twice.
The ideal, of course, would be zero positives. However, few, if any, college or city leaders could reasonably have expected that ideal. The rate of positive tests at the college is impressive if compared to many populations — the U.S. as a whole, for example, had a 5 percent positive rate as of Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center. New Hampshire’s was better, at 2.7 percent, but far higher than Keene State’s rate.
But comparing positive test rates can be misleading, for several reasons.
One is simply that states and other entities differ in how and who they test, and even in what results they report and when. As Johns Hopkins notes, “… states have changed how they count positives and negative test results and may retroactively change the numbers reported.” That can be because there’s been no centralized leadership from the Trump administration, because of well-intentioned choices that differ, or for more political reasons. In some cases, notably Florida and Georgia, state officials have mandated that testing data be suppressed or reported in ways designed to make the states’ COVID incidence appear lower. Also, testing people who are likely to have been exposed vs. those who likely haven’t been will result in far different numbers.
Beyond the differences in the testing itself, and the data that results, there are innate differences in the circumstances of populations that help determine the likelihood of positive tests. Groups that are isolating and taking careful measures are far more likely to avoid the virus. Because Keene State College mandated students be tested prior to the start of school, and quarantine if they came up positive, it set the floor at zero incidence of the virus. Repeated testing and other measures put in place help keep the numbers down and minimize the danger.
That’s the good news.
The not-so-good news is that they’re dealing with college students who, as a group, aren’t particularly known for taking seriously their own — or others’ — mortality.
Thus it was alarming last weekend to see, despite all the college’s warnings and mandates, a large drinking party in the middle of a residential Keene neighborhood. Dozens of unmasked young adults, some in Keene State garb, danced in a yard, behind a handmade sign reading: “You honk: We drink!”
It serves as a reminder that however cautious the majority may be, there are always some knuckleheads who either don’t get it or don’t care. Take the news earlier this month at the University of New Hampshire. Despite taking similar precautions to Keene State’s (in fact, KSC President Melinda Treadwell headed a task force to determine the state University System’s approach to the virus), a cluster of COVID cases erupted after the Theta Chi fraternity hosted a large party. Thursday, UNH reported it had 37 active coronavirus cases, 27 among students.
Such examples are a lot more concerning than seeing a few positives among a large number of tests, and create a greater risk that the college will have to backtrack on its in-person learning goal.