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EDITORIAL — More transparency needed

It is encouraging that after a week of classes, Longwood University is reporting only four positive cases of COVID-19. Looking around at other universities in Virginia that have experienced hundreds of positive cases so far makes it even more extraordinary.

It is so rare that some people on Facebook and in the community wonder if Longwood’s numbers are really as good as they say. While we hope the number is real, the narrow scope and limited information on the university’s COVID-19 dashboard leaves questions unanswered.

The dashboard makes it clear that only positive tests from the University Health Center are included in the total. So if a student who lives off campus goes to the emergency room at Centra Southside Community Hospital and receives a positive test, they would not be counted.

Looking at this through the lens of the James Madison University COVID-19 dashboard gives a look at how this factor could drastically change Longwood’s situation. JMU had a total of 513 active COVID-19 cases reported as of Tuesday, Sept. 1. Of those cases only 152 came from the University Health Center. The dashboard includes students who test positive from other health facilities and self-report to the university. That number is 372 students and four staff members. The students who self-reported from other facilities make up the majority, or 72.5%, of the cases at the university. JMU decided Tuesday to go fully online and sent on-campus students back home after a week of classes.

While it is certain Longwood is making itself aware of positive cases from off-campus sources, it is not including that number on its dashboard, leaving the community in the dark.

Longwood Assistant Vice President of Communications Matt McWilliams said the university comes into this dashboard process with an open mind and a willingness to change if warranted. That’s great. Longwood has been a tremendous community partner, and we know it is tackling a monster right now, and we cheer the university on with enthusiasm. But the community is right to be skeptical when the information it is being given is obviously half the story.

It is puzzling why all public universities in the commonwealth are not providing the same dashboard information. Virginia Tech, JMU, U.Va. and VCU all provide much more information than you will find at Longwood or Christopher Newport. Each has a different design with information in different places and vastly different interpretations of the same HIPAA law. We need a Virginia Department of Health solution for this. They have been perfecting their dashboard and handling coronavirus data since February. They know how this should work for everyone. Each university should not have been left to decide what data it was going to report and what it was not going to let people know about.

Immediately, Longwood needs to tell the community more of its story on the public dashboard so every Farmville citizen and Lancer parent can follow along and get a clearer picture of what is happening. Like JMU and Virginia Tech, Longwood should provide how many people are in quarantine each day, as well as a way to show students who self-report positive tests from off-campus health providers. It would also be helpful to know the number of students tested and the percentage of positive tests they are seeing.

It is natural for the community to be skeptical of the low case numbers at Longwood given the limited information that is being provided and what is happening at other colleges and universities around the country. Longwood can help us all feel better about the legitimacy of its numbers by providing more information and increasing transparency.

Farmville is rooting for Longwood and hopes the staff and students stay safe and can remain here all year. But we also care about our neighbors and need to be aware of problems that could affect the health and well-being of those around us.

(The views in this editorial are of The Farmville Herald editorial staff. This editorial was written by Editor Roger Watson. He can be reached at Editor@FarmvilleHerald.com or (434) 808-0622.)