How one university transformed the response to viral outbreaks

Lookout COVID Data Dashboard
Posted at 3:44 PM, Jun 01, 2021

Many colleges and universities are on summer break, but the lessons learned during the pandemic are already fueling conversations on how to approach the fall semester.

Many of those lessons come from Colorado Mesa University, a 10,000+ student campus located in Grand Junction, Colorado, which implanted a system to keep students in-person and on-campus all year.

When Nelly Moore, a rising senior at CMU, came down with COVID-19 in September of last year she just knew she had it, she says.

“Symptoms were pretty bad. I got sick completely,” she said. “I lost my taste and my smell, so not a good time, for sure.”

When Moore’s test result came back positive she opened her phone, signed onto something called the Scout App, and logged her symptoms and COVID-19 test results. The red screen she got in response meant she had to quarantine; a yellow screen would have meant "exhibit caution," and green, she could roam around campus while masked.

“It was really nice because you could track your symptoms,” she said of the app. “It had a calendar so you could see this week I was feeling like I had a headache and this week you could see whatever the circumstance were, so, it was nice being able to see that and get the answers you needed really fast.”

That information was then uploaded to something called the Lookout Data Dashboard that put those symptoms in a place for university management to see so it could track the virus’ spread on campus.

“We were a bunch of COVID nerds is what we became,” said Tim Foster, the university’s president.

The data dashboard was not just taking COVID tests into account to see where the virus was on campus, it was also looking at what information students registered in the Scout App. CMU even built taps into the sewage system so they could take water samples to see where the virus was on campus.

If management could see who was sick, and where they were sick, the university believed they would be able to contain the virus’s spread while also keeping kids on campus: which they did all year.

“I think it was incredibly successful at managing [the virus],” said Foster. “Being able to grab folks and get them out of circulation and keep it from running rampant throughout the campus was crucial.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Broad Institute picked up on the concept of the Scout App and Lookout Dashboard and partnered with CMU. The result was 14 other universities and 33 school districts across the country who used similar tactics to control the virus’s spread on their campuses.

“We probably avoided a half dozen outbreaks because we literally would test the poop,” said Foster. “So, all the sudden you have a level and it [rises] and so you’re like, 'ok, let’s test a lot of people in here and pull them out quickly,' and then you’d see [the numbers go back down].”

If outbreaks pop up again, there is now a blueprint of how to marry sense with science to mitigate the damage it does.