Concerns rise over increase of COVID-19 cases at colleges and universities

Updated: Sep. 1, 2020 at 6:49 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - There’s growing concern surrounding an increase in COVID-19 cases at colleges and universities across the Commonwealth.

Larger schools like UVA and Virginia Tech are reporting high numbers of student cases in a matter of a few days.

Meanwhile, the Richmond City Health District (RCHD) has been monitoring an outbreak at VCU since mid-August.

As of Tuesday, there was a slight decrease in the number of active student cases, but health officials said this pandemic is far from over.

“We’re not going to achieve herd immunity so quickly that this just goes away in the next six months,” said Dr. Danny Avula, Director of the RCHD. “I think we’re looking at 12 to 18 months or longer of circulating disease and figuring out how to deal with outbreaks.”

Avula is working with VCU to control the outbreak on campus.

He said like many other colleges and universities, plans were put in place ahead of time in case this issue arose during the school year.

“We have provided specific guidelines [to these institutions],” said Gov. Ralph Northam Tuesday. “The colleges and universities have been working with SCHEV. Their plans were certified by SCHEV and we’re watching this very closely.”

As of Tuesday, VCU currently has 90 active COVID-19 cases among students; 33 of them are in isolation on campus.

“Residents who are sick with COVID-19 or presenting symptoms associated with COVID-19 will be moved to a temporary room in Gladding Residence Center III to isolate for no less than 10 days,” said VCU spokesman Mike Porter. “Isolated residents will remain in Gladding Residence Center III until they can be around others. During isolation, residents should remain in their assigned sick room and use only the bathroom inside their suite.”

Porter added isolation accommodations in that section of the building include a private suite with a fully furnished bedroom, private bathroom (includes shower rod, curtain and toilet paper), living area with a table with chairs and a kitchenette with a refrigerator, microwave and sink.

Meanwhile, 93 VCU students are currently quarantining on campus in their assigned rooms, separate from others, and monitoring their health for 14 days from the last contact with a positive case.

“In traditional style halls, Rhoads, Johnson and Gladding Residence Center, individual-use bathrooms will be designated for residents who are self-quarantined in their room,” Porter said. “The signage on these bathrooms will state Authorized Use Only. Residents who are not self-quarantined are encouraged not to use bathrooms marked in this way. In any other hall type where there is a restroom in the resident’s apartment or suite, residents are encouraged to use the restroom closest to or connected to their room.”

“I think we should anticipate that as people come back to these scenarios, whether it’s institutes of higher educations or as K-12 schools start thinking about meeting back in person, we are going to see cases,” Avula said.

As for other universities in the metro Richmond area, the University of Richmond has no active cases as of Tuesday.

Messages to Virginia Union University were not immediately returned.

Virginia State University announced on Aug. 24 it will continue to offer classes fully online and cancel all on-campus housing this fall due to COVID-19 concerns.

As for Virginia’s larger universities, UVA reported 123 new cases among faculty, staff, students and contract employees since August 17; nearly 90 cases are from students.

These numbers come ahead of in-person classes starting Sept. 8.

Virginia Tech also saw an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases. From Aug. 24 through Aug. 30, nearly 160 new cases among staff and students were reported.

Meanwhile, James Madison University notified their students they will be sent home after 120 students tested positive for the virus after just one day.

“The thing we need to figure out is how quickly can we identify those cases and contain them so they don’t spread and cause massive outbreaks,” Avula said.

“We expect our colleges and universities to continue to follow their plans and also to work with the local health districts,” Northam said. “As long as we see that continue to happen, then we can proceed, but if it’s not then I certainly have the opportunity to intervene and make changes.”

Avula said tackling this pandemic is a collaborative effort; one that involves not only higher ed administrators, but students as well.

“We need to continue to encourage college students to think about how their behavior impacts the entire community,” he said. “We need to encourage college administrators to continue to create the right set of circumstances for kids to do this safely.”

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