COVID-19 clusters put college administrators under pressure

By | August 18, 2020

New coronavirus cases are putting pressure on administrators hoping to keep college campuses open.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reversed reopening plans on Monday, announcing that all in-person classes would shift to remote learning starting Wednesday after reporting clusters of coronavirus cases in several residence halls on campus in the past two weeks.

In the week ending Aug. 16, the COVID-19 positivity rate on campus rose from 2.8% to 13.6%. The campus health center has already tested 954 students, and 349 have been placed in quarantine both on and off campus.

“As much as we believe we have worked diligently to help create a healthy and safe campus living and learning environment, we believe the current data presents an untenable situation,” UNC-Chapel Hill said.

Several universities, such as the University of Notre Dame and Oklahoma State University, have already opened campuses for in-person classes and have remained open so far. Each school has reported clusters of new cases after reopening campuses about two weeks ago.

Notre Dame made sure that returning students were tested for the coronavirus before allowing them back on campus for the fall semester. Just 33 of the nearly 12,000 tests came back positive, the South Bend Tribune reported Friday. But from Aug. 6 to Aug. 14, the university reported 29 new cases of COVID-19 on campus, boosting the test positive rate since testing began Aug. 3 to more than 8%.

The spike in cases, less than two weeks after most students returned, shows the difficulty of controlling the virus while keeping the campus open. University spokesman Paul Browne said the increase in cases was a reminder that the school’s coronavirus plan would only work as long as students abided by campus social distancing protocols.

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“What it reinforces is our concern that it only takes a weak link,” Browne said. “You can have a very strong chain, but if you have only one weak link, it can cause numbers to spike.”

Oklahoma State University, meanwhile, confirmed 23 new coronavirus cases in a single sorority house Friday. The university has placed the off-campus house on lockdown and placed all residents in isolation or quarantine, according to CNN.

The average COVID-19 test positivity rate across the United States has decreased to about 7%, but several hot-spot states have recorded significantly higher positivity rates. Florida’s seven-day average is 16.4%, for instance, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Test positive rates in Texas and Mississippi are about 12% and 19%, respectively.

More than 5.4 million coronavirus infections have been confirmed in the U.S., and over 170,000 people have died.

Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, criticized the Trump administration’s coronavirus response Friday, saying government officials failed to protect the public from the virus as soon as it began to spiral out of control, the Houston Chronicle reported.

“And the proof of the pudding of that is simply that we have 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s deaths due to COVID-19,” Romney said. “And there’s no way to spin that in a positive light.”

The J.O. Combs Unified School District in Arizona on Monday canceled all classes, including virtual learning, after receiving 109 teacher and staff absences. Teachers told school Superintendent Gregory Wyman they do not feel safe returning to classrooms with students, NBC News reported.

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“At this time, we do not know the duration of these staff absences, and cannot yet confirm when in-person instruction may resume,” he said.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school district in the U.S., will periodically test nearly 700,000 students and 75,000 employees as the district awaits permission from California public health officials to resume in-person instruction, the New York Times reported. For now, learning will be entirely virtual.

“Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures,” said Austin Beutner, the district’s superintendent, adding that the goal was to make the program a national model.

Beutner said Los Angeles’s program, developed over the past four months, would begin this week. The program will be overseen by a task force of epidemiologists, analysts, and other experts from the University of California, Los Angeles, Johns Hopkins University, Stanford University, Microsoft, and the insurers Anthem Blue Cross and Health Net.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Monday that gyms across the state can reopen as soon as Aug. 24. at 33% maximum capacity with a blanket mask-wearing requirement. Cuomo added that health departments across the state will have to conduct thorough inspections two weeks before gyms can reopen to make sure gym staff are following health precautions, such as thorough sanitization efforts.

Cuomo’s decision to allow gyms to reopen follows his announcement made Friday that bowling alleys and some cultural institutions can reopen in the coming weeks. The string of reopenings signals that the state, a former coronavirus hot spot, has reduced the coronavirus infection rate to a sufficient extent. State data shows that the COVID-19 test positivity rate has remained below 1% for the past couple of weeks.

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has delayed elections, originally scheduled on Sept. 19, by four weeks due to a renewed coronavirus outbreak in Auckland, according to CBS News.

Before the latest outbreak, New Zealand had gone over 100 days without any known community transmission, allowing New Zealanders to return to normal life. Health officials believe the outbreak was reintroduced to the country from travelers coming from abroad. Officials also say that the 58 new cases confirmed in Auckland are probably connected, giving them hope that the virus isn’t spreading beyond the cluster.

Lebanon is on lockdown for two weeks after the country’s health ministry registered 456 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and two deaths, which set a new daily record in infections after Sunday saw 439 new cases and six deaths.

Cases were expected to increase after a deadly explosion in Beirut earlier this month left more than 6,000 people wounded and many others without shelter. The blast also left hospitals in Beirut damaged and overwhelmed. Lebanon has had almost over 9,300 coronavirus cases and 105 deaths.

Healthcare