Are college students catching COVID-19? A look at early reports from some major universities

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The first weeks of college dorm life come with several rites of passage: awkward interior decorating disputes with roommates, initial explorations of the cafeteria menu, etc., but for many this year, the routine for students both on and off campus includes managing anxiety about catching the coronavirus.  

The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill made headlines in mid-August when it shifted away from in-person classes after 135 students tested positive in a week. The numbers there have continued to rise, with the Washington Post reporting last week that at least 784 students have now tested positive at UNC.  

In the weeks since, large universities across the county have begun releasing numbers. The rates of positivity vary widely, with some schools reporting less than one percent of those tested returning positive results and others seeing positive result rates surge into the high teens. 

In many cases, institutions link spikes in cases to dorm partying, mask-free gatherings and other failures to social distance. Some schools have even announced fines or suspensions over failure to follow health and safety protocols. 

Here’s a look at infection information released by several major institutions:

University of Alabama 

On August 24th, the UA system had more than 500 new cases among students, faculty and staff. According to a dashboard established by the university, that number continues to rise, with nearly all of the confirmed cases coming from the flagship campus in Tuscaloosa. The dashboard does not provide specific information on positive result rates, but the total number of cases now stands at more than 1,300.

WIAT reports that the University has responded to increases by limiting access to Greek housing, placing a moratorium on student gatherings, and creating more spaces for isolated housing. In a press release Friday, school officials said no students had required hospitalization as a result of infection. 

Ohio State University

As of August 25th, OSU reported an infection rate of 1.16 percent among students and 1.44 percent among faculty and staff following the first week of testing. WCMH reports that by Saturday the school saw a single-day positivity rate of 5.86 percent among students. The school has suspended all in-person events and activities, regardless of size, and WCMH reports that President Kristina Johnson saw things “heading in the wrong direction.” 

Johnson has released a list of steps she feels must be taken to stop the spread. 

WCMH reports that the university has also set up a dashboard that will be updated weekly with public information on infection rates and university policy. Through the 27th, the school had seen 495 positive cases and more than 22,000 negative test results. 

Notre Dame University 

Within days of the semester opening, test positivity rate spiked to 16 percent, putting serious stress on the university’s COVID response capabilities, according to ABC News. School officials quickly told undergraduate students in South Bend that in-person classes were canceled for two weeks. In the days since, the school’s cases have climbed to over 500, according to the Notre Dame COVID dashboard. As of Monday, the school reported a seven-day positivity rate of 3.8 percent. NBC reports that in-person classes will resume on Wednesday.

Arizona State University

In a statement on August 26th, ASU’s president said that test results from 32,729 of the roughly 100,000 students in the Phoenix area revealed 161 known positive cases. The number continues to grow, according to local media reports, with the university telling the local ABC affiliate that the positivity rate among students is just .6 percent, with roughly half of the infected students living off campus.

Baylor University

As of Monday, KXAN in Austin reports that students in a residence hall are being asked to shelter in their dorm rooms following an outbreak among 21 students on two floors. According to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard, the school has seen a positivity rate of 12.4 percent over the last week, totaling 456 active cases.

The university requires students and staff to wear face coverings in all buildings and in outdoor areas where social distancing isn’t possible. 

University of Southern California

School officials warned of an ‘alarming increase’ of infection after 43 students tested positive following the first week of classes. USC is holding all classes online and there is no in-person instruction on campus, according to KTLA. As of Monday, USC’s COVID dashboard showed the positivity rate of students tested stood at 12 percent in the most recent two-day sample.

KTLA reported Thursday that, while no students had become severely ill, the university is seeing small gatherings and parties as potential vehicles for spreading the virus among the student population. At least 100 students have been ordered into quarantine. KTLA reports that few students are living in on-campus housing, and most of the positive cases are from individuals living in nearby apartments. 

University of Connecticut 

WTNH reports that there were 56 active COVID-19 cases in isolation on campus as of Monday. The school’s dashboard reports a positivity rate of 1.12%. Last week a residence hall was placed under quarantine after ten new cases popped up there, according to WTNH. About half of the school’s students are primarily receiving online instruction, according to the university

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