Rice University Discovers Inaccurate COVID-19 Positivity Rate After Delaying In-Person Classes

Rice University in Houston, Texas, announced last week that the first two weeks of the fall semester would be moved online because of a high number of COVID-19 cases among students. It now says the data the decision was based upon were flawed.

In an Aug. 22 letter to the campus community, Rice’s Vice President for Administration Kevin E. Kirby said “anomalies” in the initial testing data prompted the university to retest dozens of students deemed positive for COVID-19, and “all but one of those have turned out to be negative.”

According to the letter, Rice started to ramp up its testing program on Aug. 13 with three different test providers and conducted about 4,500 tests over 9 days with initial results showing 81 positive results. This positivity rate of 2 percent, although much lower than that of the city of Houston, Kirby said in the letter, was still concerning enough that the university officials delayed the start of in-person classes.

“For Rice, a 2 percent rate would be significantly higher than our historical positivity rate of 0.24 percent over the last year when we ran about 150,000 tests,” Kirby said. “This unusual campus positivity rate prompted us to take quick action and assume a more cautionary posture until we could determine whether there was a significant risk of widespread infection.”

Rice began investigating the results when it realized that over 90 percent of the positive infections came from a single test provider, and most of those cases involved people who reported no symptoms or had been fully vaccinated. It turned out that the provider had changed its testing protocol without the university’s knowledge.

“Then we retested about 50 people who initially tested positive. Each of them was tested two additional times, on two different days, by two different test providers, and all but one came back negative,” Kirby wrote, adding that the university released students who were falsely determined to be COVID-19 positive from isolation. – READ MORE