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Michigan State, U-M change reporting to disclose more campus COVID cases

Two days after the Ingham County health officer called out large differences in COVID case counts at Michigan State University — her department tallied more than twice what MSU reported — the university has updated its website to reflect the larger number.

The Michigan State coronavirus tracker web page as of Thursday lists 1,219 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since Aug. 24, up from 499 that the university reported for that time period earlier this week. 

“It was a matter of having our IT team get the work started and get the information in a way that we can put on our dashboard,” said MSU spokesman Dan Olsen.

Also Thursday, University of Michigan began adding positive, off-campus cases to its website, said spokesman Rick Fitzgerald.

That sifted in 140 additional cases, almost all students, since Aug. 16, for a total of 309 in that period.

The data at U-M has become more robust over time, but it has taken time to package it in ways that it can be transferred easily and is easily understood, Fitzgerald said, adding that the university worked with the Washtenaw County Health Department to update its dashboard.

The two developments are wins for transparency in a state that is struggling not only to release real-time information about school outbreaks, but also to help worried families, schools and businesses understand how COVID-19 data can change as case investigations unfold.

On Tuesday, Linda Vail, Ingham County health officer, expressed frustration that MSU was not including county numbers in its case counts.

Vail said she had repeatedly provided the university with county case data, but MSU’s response was that the data — handed over without names or personal identifiers to protect health privacy — can’t be verified as students or confirmed to be connected to the university. 

County health officials do contact tracing and consider cases MSU-related if they are students, faculty or staff of the university. 

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“I’m like, you either need to take off the fact that you're getting that information from local health departments or you have to take my numbers,” Vail told reporters Tuesday.

At the same time, Vail lauded the university’s efforts to keep students safe, calling its staff “amazing partners.”

Michigan State closed its residence halls and moved virtually all its classes online in August, just days before students were to move into dorms in East Lansing, in an effort to lower the number of students on or near campus.  Students and staff are required to wear masks when on campus, and East Lansing officials have mandated masks in the downtown business area around the campus.

For its part, the health department banned any outdoor gatherings of more than 25 people in East Lansing areas associated with the university, then recommended — but did not require — all MSU students living in East Lansing self-quarantine for 14 days. It also ordered a mandatory quarantine at of more than two dozen fraternities, sororities and large off-campus student houses.

Olsen said Thursday that case counts changed slightly between Vail’s news update Tuesday and Thursday as MSU and public health scrubbed data for accuracy.

Spokeswoman Amanda Darche Thursday said health officials were “pleased” at the updated website.

She said Thursday that she is “confident” of the MSU website, which updates numbers weekly and reflects the same numbers as the health department through cases confirmed Sunday.

“I don’t think either partner liked having a disparity or difference in the numbers,” Darche said.

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