UNMC Study in OPS Schools Finds More Asymptomatic COVID Cases Than Previously Thought

April 20, 2021, 2:57 p.m. ·

Dr. Jana Broadhurst with UNMC's College of Medicine. Still image, via Zoom

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A five-month pilot study at six public schools in Omaha shows there are likely many times the number of asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 among students than what are reported through conventional methods.

The study was a collaboration between Omaha Public Schools and the University of Nebraska Medical Center and included two phases and a total of six pilot schools, three in north Omaha and three in south Omaha, between November of 2020 and March of this year. 12% of students and nearly 100% of teachers and staff took weekly saliva-based COVID tests. The data showed infection rates among students that were nearly six times higher than what is routinely observed and two and half times higher in staff.

“We do under-ascertain the number of cases that are present in our school setting when we do not actively look for cases through asymptomatic screening,” Dr. Jana Broadhurst with UNMC’s College of Medicine and author of the study said.

The study included environmental sampling and found very little of the COVID-19 virus in areas like classrooms and cafeterias but did find it in choir rooms. Broadhurst said it’s clear the majority of COVID-19 infections are asymptomatic.

“Proactive case findings of asymptomatic cases in schools is important and is an important additional measure on top of conventional case reporting mechanisms through self-identification or other testing means,” Dr. Broadhurst said.

Broadhurst said around 9 in 10 student COVID-19 cases might be missed by conventional case reporting and said proactive asymptomatic testing could dramatically lessen transmission in schools.