USC offers little clarity on COVID-19 death and critically ill numbers

In response to repeated requests from Annenberg Media, the university revealed it does not collect data on how many lives in the USC community have been lost due to COVID-19.

Los Angeles County reports COVID-19 deaths daily, but USC does not formally track data on the number of lives lost in its community.

USC, which is made up of more than 66,000 students and employees and is the city’s largest private employer, holds weekly briefings to provide updates on the coronavirus pandemic in the USC community and releases figures on positive tests and vaccine rollout. But death and critical illness figures have been absent from these briefings.

Annenberg Media on Jan. 15 and Jan. 28 asked Dr. Sarah Van Orman, USC’s chief health officer, about the community’s number of deaths and critical illnesses attributed to COVID-19, but received no comment. In an interview last week, Van Orman told Annenberg Media that the USC Student Health center does not formally collect data on COVID-related deaths. Instead, she said officials rely on “anecdotal reports” from family members or colleagues to learn about deaths and hospitalizations. Van Orman said this is particularly true for faculty and staff.

“Our caution about reporting [death] numbers is we don’t have a reason to think that we would know about every case,” Van Orman said. “We report percentages and total cases like we’re a health department, but we’re really not a health department.”

Van Orman differentiated the USC’s data collection from Los Angeles County Public Health, saying, “We don’t report the number of faculty that die of cancer and heart disease and flu and other kinds of conditions. Because we don’t have that kind of responsibility for our faculty and staff population, they might not tell us, and the similar is true of COVID.”

According to Van Orman, because data on faculty and staff deaths are not formally gathered, once a death is disclosed by a family member or colleague, any communication and outreach is handled by the department where the deceased person worked.

“We haven’t had any student deaths reported,” Van Orman said. “We do know we had one staff member that we’ve learned has passed away from COVID.”

One member of the USC community known to have died due to COVID-19 complications is Jed Dannenbaum, a professor emeritus of the School of Cinematic Arts. Dannenbaum died Dec. 28, according to an obituary featured on the International Documentary Association’s blog and multiple emails sent from officials at the School of Cinematic Arts, which called Dannenbaum “an exceptionally generous colleague and valued mentor to friends and students alike.” Lisa Leeman, another professor in the School of Cinematic Arts, told Annenberg Media in an email statement that,  “[Dannenbaum] was a friend and mentor and much missed.”

There have been 2,875 confirmed cases and 38 deaths in the University Park area, making the area’s death rate about 0.14%, according to Los Angeles County Public Health. At the time of publication, the county itself had reported 16,107 deaths since the pandemic began, and 213 deaths on Feb. 1 alone.

The lack of death and critical illness data comes along with a rise in COVID-19 cases at USC as more students returned to the campus area following winter break. Data on COVID-related death and critical illness can be a reflection of how severely the USC community has been affected by the pandemic. Without that information, the positivity rates and case numbers become the best indication of the trends of the virus around campus.

“There’s a lot of cases at USC right now,” Van Orman said in a briefing on Jan. 28. She noted that the positivity rate has “climbed a little bit among the student population.”

Van Orman attributed the rise in coronavirus positivity rates to the sudden influx of students returning to the Los Angeles area after the winter recess between semesters. Van Orman said this fits with the broader pattern of positivity rates rising, comparing it to the rise that occurred when students returned to the campus community area in August at the start of the fall semester. “It’s not an unexpected increase or spike,” she said, characterizing the rise as “a modest peak.”

Still, Van Orman predicted that the community had not yet reached the highest point of its COVID-19 positivity rate.

“I don’t think we are quite at the peak yet,” Van Orman said. “Our peak of student positivity should be in another week or so.”

Van Orman’s assessment of an impending rise in cases and positivity rates among students, raises questions of how another rise in cases, especially asymptomatic cases, will affect the community.

Despite the rise of COVID-19 cases within the student population, “the good news is we’re actually starting to see some kind of decline in our employee positivity rate,” Van Orman said. According to Van Orman, the university overhauled their testing process before the Spring semester started. Wide-scale employee testing, which requires on-site employees to get tested every week, began a week before wide-scale student testing. A university-wide email sent by USC Student Health on Jan. 15 revealed that they had processed nearly 10,000 tests “for members of our university community” in their first week of COVID-19 Pop Testing 3.0 and identified a number of asymptomatic cases.

Van Orman also reported on the expanding vaccination efforts at the university. “We’ve now completed vaccination of almost all of our health care workforce. That includes almost 3,000 students,” Van Orman said. “And then, late last week we opened up vaccinations to employees and students who are age 65 and above.”

Dean Willow Bay of USC Annenberg recently emailed her school’s staff and faculty that she was “delighted to share” that “USC Annenberg faculty and staff who are 65 or older are now scheduled for, or have already received, their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.” Faculty members have been sharing the news they’ve gotten the shot on social media.

Though the vaccination expansion is expected to help protect a segment of the USC community considered especially vulnerable to COVID-19, Van Orman warned that there are not yet any concrete plans to further ramp up vaccination efforts.

“The latest word we have is that vaccine distribution is slowing down within L.A. County; we’re not going to get any more doses for a while,” Van Orman said. “A lot of people are anxiously waiting, when do other people below age 65, other employees working on site, when are those people going to be vaccinated? Unfortunately we don’t know right now. The best information we’re getting is that we’re going to be only vaccinating [people ages] 65 and above.”

Though more employees and some students will be vaccinated in the coming weeks, it remains to be seen whether it will offset the rise in transmission as the semester begins and the population around the campus community increases.