MSU says it has 548 COVID-19 cases. The health department says it's actually 1,250. | Michigan Radio
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MSU says it has 548 COVID-19 cases. The health department says it's actually 1,250.

Sep 22, 2020

Update, Thursday September 23: Michigan State University has updated its online COVID-19 dashboard to reflect cases reported by the Ingham County Health Department, two days after the county's public health director revealed the health department's case count was far higher than what the university was publicly stating. 

The university notified the public of the change, says spokesman Dan Olsen, by contacting reporters Thursday morning and sending out a notice in the campus newsletter that afternoon. 

"The university’s COVID-19 dashboard now reflects the total number of positive cases of MSU students and employees reported by the Ingham County Health Department," the newsletter reads. "It does not include students and employees tested outside of the county and does not necessarily include those who self-reported a positive case to the university." 

That change means the case numbers listed on MSU's site essentially doubled overnight, from 548 cases at the start of this week, to 1,239 cases since July 27th. A spokesperson for MSU said the university is "continuing our ongoing partnership with [the health department] to report this information weekly (each Monday.)" 

Those case numbers are still slightly lower than the 1,250 MSU-related cases Ingham County Health Director Linda Vail said her department had recorded in the last 30 days. Those cases only include those the health department can verify are MSU students, faculty, or staff, Vail said Tuesdsay, and do not include secondary cases in the broader East Lansing community. 

This story will continue to be updated. 

Original post, Tuesday September 22: Michigan State University is knowingly underreporting the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among students, faculty, and staff, according to information released by the Ingham County Health Department on Tuesday.

While the university’s online COVID dashboard says it has had 548 known COVID cases since July 27, the real number is closer to 1,250 cases just since August 24, says Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail.

But Vail says, despite reporting every case confirmed by the health department to the university, MSU has chosen not to include those cases in its reports.

“I think this is where the university is a little confused right now,” Vail says. “We are the public health system. We do contact tracing. We do investigations. We are talking to students on the phone that say, ‘I'm an MSU student. I'm an MSU student. I'm an MSU student...’ I feel very confident in these numbers."

Vail says she herself has warned administrators that the discrepancy between the health department’s numbers and what the university is reporting, doesn’t look good.

“As we saw these numbers start to become very, very disparate, my point to them is if this continues... it is going to call into question: What's going on at the university?” Vail said. “So we need to work this out so that that doesn't happen. I'm trying to help them.”

Having 1,250 COVID cases in the last month would mean MSU has by far the most cases of any college or university in Michigan, according to outbreak data from the state and what’s been self-reported by the institutions. Grand Valley State University has the second highest case count, with reports 873 COVID cases since August 1.

Top: The number of COVID-19 cases reported by MSU as of Sept. 22. Bottom: The number of MSU-related cases reported by the Ingham County Health Dept. as of Sept. 22.
Credit Michigan State University; Ingham County Health Dept.

A Michigan State University spokesman said Tuesday that the school does not dispute the accuracy of the health department’s numbers. He also confirmed MSU has been aware of the growing discrepancy between what the health department is telling the university, and what the university is publicly reporting on its dashboard.

“Obviously, it is apparent that the county has a more robust number and information available to them,” says spokesman Dan Olsen. “So we definitely don't dispute that number.”

The problem, he says, is the health department doesn’t always share enough information about each case to allow MSU to independently verify it.

“Sometimes it makes it a little bit difficult if numbers are shared with the university, but we don't have names associated with that. So it's harder to identify whether that number is attached to a student, and that we're not duplicating that in our dashboard.”

Vail says because of HIPAA protections around patient information, the health department cannot disclose the names of individuals who have tested positive for COVID to MSU unless there is a specific public health need, like if the health department is having trouble locating a student for contact tracing.

“The information needs to be disclosed to them, to the extent that is required to protect the public health,” Vail says. “It is not to be disclosed to them just so that we can compare our numbers. So, yes, there might be duplicates. My suggestion was then, maybe you should just take our numbers, because ours are probably more accurate.

“There was a comment [from MSU] about, ‘Well, we can't verify that they're students.’ It's like, I'm telling you that they're students. Because when my case investigators talk to them, they tell us. And quite honestly, if you look at the age range and the addresses, it's the right age range and it's the typical student housing places.”

10 to 29 year-olds make up 62% of COVID-19 cases in Ingham County.
Credit Ingham County Health Dept.

Part of Vail’s frustration is that MSU’s dashboard specifically says it includes cases “the university becomes aware of through campus testing sites or local health departments...” She says she’s asked the university to at least remove that statement from the website.

“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.”

So why, if MSU was aware the health department had confirmed more than twice as many COVID cases as the university was disclosing publicly, didn’t they just include the health department’s numbers on the online dashboard?

“It's a good point,” Olsen said Tuesday. “It is something that we are taking into consideration and looking at going forward. And I think you can expect to see future iterations of that dashboard. We definitely want to make sure that we're providing our public with the information that they're looking for.”

As to Vail’s request that the university remove mention of the public health department from its dashboard of “known cases,” Olsen said MSU was considering it.

“It's all part of our conversations in partnership with the health department,” he said. “I appreciate that ongoing partnership, and we’ll continue to work with them and find a way to best report these numbers to not only our campus community, but our broader public.”

 Clarification: an earlier version of this story originally said MSU made the change to its online dashboard "quietly." An MSU spokesperson contacted our reporter on Thursday morning to note the change. And later in the day, the University noted it in a campus newsletter Thursday afternoon.