Despite weekend parties and maskless gatherings, Arizona State won’t release COVID-19 data

PHOENIX – The first weekend after classes started at Arizona State University brought parties and

PHOENIX – The first weekend after classes started at Arizona State University brought parties and people in groups not wearing masks while hanging out together on campus. Tempe Police cited multiple off-campus parties over the weekend.

But the public won’t know whether these parties and group activities, or even students gathering in classes or dorms, have resulted in additional COVID-19 cases.

Arizona State will not disclose how many cases it has on campus or among its students and employees, nor the locations of any cases or exposures, to the general public, citing “privacy issues.”

The Arizona attorney general has previously said universities can disclose cases as long as the information doesn’t identify individuals. Experts on government transparency say there’s no reason this information should be withheld.

And other universities across the country are publicly disclosing case numbers.

Students walk across the bridge above University Drive the day before school opens on Aug. 19, 2020, at Arizona State University in Tempe.
Students walk across the bridge above University Drive the day before school opens on Aug. 19, 2020, at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Not only can the number of cases be disclosed, but the university should also release this information, said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.

“First of all, families need to know whether there are four cases or 400 cases so that they can make an educated decision about whether it’s safe to go there,” LoMonte said. 

“Also, the public needs to be able to evaluate whether the government officials who run this public institution are making wise decisions or not. Only by seeing the data that the administrators have can the public adequately evaluate whether they are doing their jobs properly.”

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Elsewhere, Ohio State had not shared plans for how it will communicate about campus coronavirus cases or data as of midday Tuesday, the first day of classes. 

The lack of university coronavirus data dates to earlier this summer. Citing privacy concerns, the university would not release testing data or positive test numbers when Ohio State football players resumed workouts in June. 

Since then, Ohio State has been ramping up its testing program to test all of its nearly 12,000 on-campus students each week.

Ohio State spokesman Ben Johnson said this week that the university hopes to begin sharing coronavirus testing data “in the next several days.”

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Tempe police cite nine parties

Tempe police issued nine party citations over the weekend, including six that were related to students gathering, according to the Tempe Police Department.

The department did not provide further information about the incidents, or what this weekend’s citations were specifically for. Citations are typically issued for loud music, littering, parking violations and underage drinking.

Police officers are conducting weekend patrols in the neighborhoods hoping to crack down on loud or large gatherings, the city said in a news release Monday.

The patrols are intended to educate hosts and attendees on local and state laws and officers will take enforcement action if needed.

Citation fines are $250 for the first time an officer responds to a home for a party, $1,000 for the second offense and $1,500 for each offense after that. Students who attend or host parties could be disciplined by the school, too, the city said.

In addition to the weekend patrols, officers are visiting downtown businesses to encourage owners and customers to follow the city’s mask ordinance and physical distancing guidelines.

“It is vital that college and university students in Tempe wear masks in public, avoid large groups and use physical distancing,” Mayor Corey Woods said in a statement on Monday.

An Arizona State University police spokesperson said they were not aware of any gatherings reported on campus this weekend, so no citations were issued. Off-campus parties would be under the jurisdiction of local police departments.

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Students have varied experiences

Arizona State students shared photos and videos on social media over the past several days showing parties and groups gathering in common areas without masks. Masks are required on campus.

Unverified reports of positive COVID-19 cases on campus are circulating as well. Two parents told a local television station that their children, who are Arizona State students, were exposed to positive cases in the dorms in Tempe. 

One student, Kevin Redifer, posted a video showing dozens of young people lined up outside a house party near Arizona State’s Tempe campus on Saturday night. He told The Arizona Republic, part of the USA TODAY Network, that he doesn’t just blame the students involved, but university administrators who “knowingly put students and the community in a position where this behavior is inevitable.”

Mya Vallejo, a junior studying criminal justice, is taking her classes all online this semester, but still lives and works near campus. She’s witnessed people walking in groups of multiple people, unmasked, on campus. She saw posts about parties on Snapchat and Instagram this weekend.

“Should I email one person not wearing a mask to (Arizona State President) Michael Crow? It feels like there’s not a lot that I can do,” she said. “And I mean, I see people every day not wearing masks, so there’s no enforcement, it feels like.” 

The school’s messaging has focused on personal responsibility and imploring everyone to follow COVID-19 protocols, she said, but it’s not clear who’s enforcing them. She’s not sure whether she’s supposed to report potential violations to the university, or whether it would be worth the time.

“I don’t want to blame the students, because I think this is on ASU for opening up and giving people the chance to not wear masks and go to parties,” she said. “So I think it’s mostly on ASU, but I just wish that students would take more responsibility.

Conor McGill, a sophomore studying sports journalism, attends the Arizona State campus in Phoenix. He said the campus has been quiet, and everyone seems to comply with health protocols. Classrooms and campus feel safe and distanced, and he’s glad to be back to in-person learning. 

“It’s just been very calm at downtown, and hopefully the Tempe students don’t ruin it for the downtown students, because we’re taking a lot of measures to go in person and I hope no one ruins it for other students who want to get an education,” he said.

Universities across country provide more information

LoMonte, the transparency expert, said many universities across the country have provided information on cases tied to campus without getting in trouble with the U.S. Department of Education over violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the law often cited to prevent disclosure of student records.

“They seem to have really wedded themselves to this legal interpretation, but it’s certainly not the prevailing legal interpretation around the country,” he said.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which prevents the disclosure of private health information to outside parties, also doesn’t apply to releasing an aggregate total of cases at a college, he said.

“There’s almost certainly no privacy law that forbids disclosing these statistics,” he said.

As long as information released doesn’t allow a person without knowledge of the case to track it back to an individual, it should be able to be disclosed, he said.

“Nobody is going to be able to Sherlock Holmes their way into figuring out the name of a student from a number like one, two or three. No one is able to reverse-engineer numbers like that,” he said.

Arizona State’s position that there are privacy concerns differs from many colleges throughout the country, and also from some within the state, including one that is also overseen by the Arizona Board of Regents.

The University of Arizona is publishing the number of cases on campus. So far, of the more than 8,000 people tested as part of UA’s reentry plans, 27 have tested positive, the school’s website shows. 

Northern Arizona University’s position is aligned with Arizona State. NAU has not released the number of positive cases on campus.

In March, in response to a question from a lawmaker, Attorney General Mark Brnovich wrote an opinion saying there was nothing preventing universities from disclosing information on cases as long as they didn’t release information that was identifying, particularly during a health emergency. 

“Nothing, however, prohibits the universities from disclosing additional information, such as the campus, buildings or dorms frequented by the student during the incubation period and/or while exhibiting symptoms,” Brnovich wrote. “Protecting the public is paramount during times of crisis, and transparency should be the rule rather than the exception.”

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Monitoring ZIP codes doesn’t give full picture

Last weekend, Arizona State told The Arizona Republic that it would not disclose any positive cases or related information due to “privacy issues.” The school has yet to respond to questions regarding the legal justification for withholding the information. The response aligned with Arizona State’s position to not release case information since the pandemic began. The university had one of the first confirmed cases in the country. 

Crow has occasionally given some information on cases since then. In March, he said the school had 15 cases. This month, he told The Arizona Republic that 40 students who were tested before moving into the dorms had tested positive before arriving on campus, out of the thousands of students who were tested. Of those who tested when  they came to campus to live in the dorms, only one has tested positive, he said.

But Arizona State is not providing any centralized or consistent information on the total cases or their locations.

The school reports its cases to the Arizona Department of Health Services, as required by the state. People can track the ZIP codes where Arizona State campuses are located, a spokesperson said. 

Holly Poynter, a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Health Services, said address information can be updated throughout a case investigation. A case’s ZIP code is based on the person’s primary residence, she said. 

If someone lives in a dorm, that would typically be considered their primary residence, she said. Sometimes, this may not be identified until later in an investigation because a different home address is used for insurance, she said. 

“It is important to note that cases in a particular ZIP code do not necessarily indicate that the infection happened in that ZIP code,” Poynter said. 

Contributing: Jennifer Smola, Columbus Dispatch; Emily Wilder, Arizona Republic

Follow reporter Rachel Leingang (@rachelleingang) and Paulina Pineda (@paulinapineda22) on Twitter.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona State University won’t release COVID-19 data after parties

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