Colleges become COVID breeding grounds threatening to spill over into communities
College administrators and government officials summoned students back to campus. Now, they are presiding over viral reservoirs poised to release a flood of infected undergraduates at Thanksgiving -- if they make it that far.
Schools have turned into de facto sanitariums: COVID-19 infections are sweeping student populations, though health departments are seeing relatively few hospitalizations or deaths so far. Colleges that tried to hold classes in person have had to send students into seclusion. Last week alone, the New Jersey Institute of Technology quarantined 300 people after the virus was found in their dorm's wastewater, the University of Wisconsin at River Falls ordered all students to shelter in place after a surge in cases, and Florida State University's football coach announced he had tested positive.
With many schools planning to end their semesters at the holiday, students will disperse across the country, and some will bring the disease with them.
"This is beyond our wildest nightmares," said Gavin Yamey, a physician who directs Duke University's Center for Policy Impact in Global Health. "It has been a debacle, a national catastrophe and, in many ways, you could consider it a third wave. The third wave is a university reopening wave. It was a self-inflicted national wound."
Universities were bleeding revenue when they called students back for the fall semester, facing cuts as tuition and fees plunged. Some plowed ahead with lucrative football programs, despite their potential to draw crowds. But as students returned, infection rates increased. Many schools are now running out of space to house those who tested positive. Administrators are struggling to keep infections contained as students venture off campus for coffee or hang out at bars and parties.
"If infected students go home, there is a risk that they could seed outbreaks all around the country -- outbreaks that are ultimately caused by the university reopening," said Yamey.
Michigan State University changed to all virtual education in mid-August to prevent having to send students home, but many wound up in off-campus housing. MSU's home county, Ingham, last week issued a mandatory quarantine for off-campus residences including fraternity and sorority houses.
In Colorado, Boulder County on Sept. 15 issued a "strong recommendation" to University of Colorado students to quarantine for two weeks in residence halls or homes to contain a surge in COVID-19 infections. The majority of new cases has been among those ages 18 to 29.
"Most transmission seems to be coming from large off-campus gatherings, particularly among sororities, fraternities and other students living in the Hill neighborhood, along with failure to wear face coverings and practice physical distancing," the health department said.
Some schools have sent students home without testing them, potentially carrying the virus throughout regions. With Thanksgiving ahead, the potential for wider infections is dangerous. One solution could be a two-week university-wide quarantine before departure, said Duke's Yamey. Minimally, all students should be tested, he said, with the infected isolated and the exposed quarantined.
Cases in college-aged people are likely to result in fewer hospitalizations and deaths, because young people typically have milder infections, said Josh Michaud, an associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, an independent nonprofit. That's unlikely to be the case if the new coronavirus spreads more broadly.
"We're just starting to see at a very broad level the impacts of reopening colleges, universities and schools," said Michaud. "It's very predictable that we would see outbreaks at colleges. Whether that translates to broader community transmission trends, we just don't know."
Three college towns have seen spikes in cases that placed them among the nation's most infected per capita in recent weeks. In Virginia, there's Radford, a city dominated by Radford University, and Harrisonburg, with James Madison University. In Washington, there's Whitman County, with Washington State University.
None of those places are seeing spillover into surrounding communities, according to local health departments.
"That's what we work every day to prevent," said Robert Parker, a spokesman for the Virginia health department's western region, which includes not only Radford, but Virginia Tech and New River Community College.
Radford University spokeswoman Wendy Lowery said positive cases have plateaued and declined.
James Madison moved to remote learning for a month. "We did this because we care, first and foremost, about our community's well-being," said spokeswoman Caitlyn Read.
In Whitman County, a rural area tucked in Washington's southeastern corner, cases are rising.
For the first months of the pandemic, it racked up only about 170 COVID-19 cases. That changed rapidly after students from Washington State in Pullman came back in mid-August. About 900 cases emerged through Sept. 16, almost all among college-aged people, said Troy Henderson, director of Whitman County Public Health.
It happened even though Washington State scuttled plans for an in-person reopening, launching its fall semester with virtual learning. Thousands of the school's 20,000-person student body came back anyway, some of whom can be seen playing beer pong in the yards of off-campus housing, Henderson said.
Little can be done, he said. The city police have been giving out citations, and he's constantly searching for ways to contain students' behavior, though, "I haven't thought of anything good yet."
A few new positive cases emerged in the broader community, though the county believes it's been able to stop a surge through quick identification, testing and contact tracing, Henderson said.
"In this demographic of 18 to 25, a lot of them can get it before someone has a really bad result," he said. "But if this spills over to a long-term care facility, that'll be a completely different thing."
The university has set up free testing, with the goal of screening all students living in Pullman this month, offered staff as contact tracers, and is working closely with local government, said spokesman Phil Weiler.
"Students who are getting ill are either having very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, but the scary thing is they have the potential to infect people in the broader community," Weiler said. "We really wanted to get ahead of that."
Other schools are refusing to release COVID patients: At the State University of New York at Oneonta, which closed for in-person learning in the beginning of September, there had been almost 700 cases by Friday. Students must be cleared by local public health officials before they can go home.
The University of Albany, part of the SUNY system, this month identified clusters of students with positive cases within athletic and off-campus housing. The campus has had 103 cases since Aug. 28, according to SUNY data.
"We knew it would be unrealistic to expect that we could keep the virus off our campus entirely," spokesman Mike Nolan said.
Students like Damilola Adesanya are trying to stop the spread on campus to avoid going home. Most are wearing masks, even outside, elbow-bumping instead of high-fiving, and attempting to stay in small groups, said Adesanya, 20, a senior from Brooklyn who is president of the student government.
Students police one another, glaring at those who don't wear masks and calling people out on social media.
People are pleading on Instagram, saying, "Listen, put your mask on. I will literally snitch you out if you have a party," Adesanya said. "People not playing."
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