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UM, MSU Won't Release Campus COVID-19 Numbers

University of Montana's oval and Main Hall.
Josh Burnham
Montana Public Radio
University of Montana's oval and Main Hall.

As college students returned to class, Montana’s two largest universities are not disclosing COVID-19 cases on campus. Local health departments are taking different approaches when it comes to reporting the numbers. Some faculty say they’d feel safer knowing the details of COVID-19’s movement at their school.

The University of Montana’s Faculty Senate approved a resolution this week asking administrators to release information that gives a picture of the possible spread of COVID-19 on campus.

Chris Palmer is the faculty senate president and a professor of chemistry at UM. Palmer says, "Faculty passed a resolution that reflects our concerns and also, I think, the concerns and wishes of the entire campus community to have access to up-to-date information on the status of COVID-19 on campus."

Palmer said not knowing the situation on campus only adds to the anxiety that people are already feeling. But officials from both UM and MSU have said the schools won’t be publishing data.

Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner of higher education for the Montana University System, said university officials have left it up to local public health departments to make decisions about releasing information and that practice will continue.

"It certainly makes sense for public health to be the tracker of record."

Tessman said there isn’t a University System-wide policy in place that would dictate how numbers should be published. But generally speaking, he said university officials are concerned with releasing data that could potentially single out a student or faculty member.

"We have segments of campus that are pretty small so it would be pretty easy to identify someone with very little information," he said.

Cindy Farr with the Missoula City-County Health Department said the health department does not release information related to the location of positive cases, except in rare circumstances. She said the health department is keeping track of cases at UM and around Missoula but doesn’t plan on publishing an update on COVID-19 cases specific to the university. Farr said the health department would support the university doing that. But she said that decision is up to school officials.

"Generally, we would actually wait until the university approached us and said, 'hey we would like to release this information.' That’s just the way we’ve always done it with all organizations."

In Gallatin County, home of Montana State University, health officials have decided to publish school-specific COVID-19 case numbers once a week.

Matt Kelley is the health officer for Gallatin County.

"And so we’re going to do our best to give the community updates on how things are going, but do so in a way that’s reasonable and that respects the privacy of the people who are at MSU or in those K-12 settings."

Kelly says that since MSU students moved in last week, 31 cases of COVID-19 have been associated with the school’s Bozeman campus.

Other universities around the country are taking a different approach.

Meloney Linder is the vice president of marketing and communications at the University of North Dakota. The university in Grand Forks created a dashboard that shows in real-time how many people on campus have tested positive for COVID-19 or are in quarantine. That's broken down into faculty, staff and students.

"That’s one of the things that we’re getting the most positive feedback [on] is that our community really feels like they have a great pulse because it’s not once per week, they’re seeing it live."

Linder said the dashboard doesn’t reveal any personal or identifiable information, so the university isn’t concerned about breaching privacy.

Linder said the dashboard is a way to give people confidence that university officials are monitoring cases and allows people to assess the situation so they can feel comfortable on campus.

"And it gives us as leaders an opportunity to really see the trends, you know, live, about what are the spikes happening over a day, not weeks."

Deputy commissioner of the Montana University System Tessman told state lawmakers at a committee meeting last week that university officials will look at a variety of factors to determine whether campuses remain safe for in-person instruction, including the number of positive cases on campus.

Palmer at the University of Montana said faculty and staff would like to be a part of that decision-making process, but they can’t when they don’t have the relevant information.

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