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Rising coronavirus cases at U-Va., VMI and other Virginia colleges spark worry, lead to changes
InternationalFeb 20. 2021
By The Washington Post, Lauren Lumpkin
Virginia universities are ramping up testing and at least one is banning in-person gatherings to deal with surging cases of the coronavirus and protect against a more contagious variant that was first detected in the state in late January.
More than 600 students have been sickened this week at the University of Virginia, spurring restrictions that have left the campus divided. And cases at the Virginia Military Institute have been on the rise since early this month.
Schools like George Mason University have also noticed an uptick in cases, and the campus is preparing to ramp up testing – with a goal of testing every student twice a week, said Gregory Washington, the university’s president.
Elsewhere, the number of coronavirus cases have recently been falling across the greater District of Columbia region.
U-Va. officials are blaming widespread incidents of noncompliance for that campus’s spike. But cases began to surge after a weekend of in-person fraternity and sorority recruitment events that U-Va. President Jim Ryan admitted at a town hall on Friday that “perhaps, we should have tried harder to discourage.”
Mitch Rosner, a professor and chair of the Department of Medicine, said about three-quarters of cases reported by the university are among students living off campus, but contact tracing efforts have not linked any cases from the university to the wider Charlottesville community.
A variant first identified in U.K. has thrown another wrench into the university’s ability to control the virus. Rosner said the strain – detected on the campus about a week ago – has not had a major influence so far on the ongoing outbreak.
The university has yet to disclose how many cases of the variant have been identified in the community. Rosner said capacity to sequence the viral genetic material is limited, and officials cannot provide data about how prevalent this variant is on campus at this time.
The surge of cases at U-Va. – including 229 new cases among faculty, staff, students and other employees reported on Tuesday – triggered restrictions designed to curb the virus’ spread. But some students at the university’s town hall questioned the decision to ban in-person gatherings and close essential services, such as the library. Students – particularly those who continue to follow the rules – feel unfairly punished.
“I’m sorry you’ve had to sacrifice and endure so much,” Ryan told students. “The days ahead will test the character of our community and I implore all of you to do the right thing.”
Recent outbreaks have also frustrated students at the Virginia Military Institute, which has 166 active cases, or roughly 10% of the school’s enrollment. Fifty-six cadets have been sickened since Monday.
The Lexington campus started to see a spike in cases around Feb. 2, four days before hosting the annual “Breakout,” a day of grueling military-style exercises after which first-year students – also called “rats” – become recognized as “fourth-class cadets” in the corps.
A cadet, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisal, said the school’s commandant staff was not rigorously enforcing social distancing rules and mask-wearing at the breakout. The cadet, an upperclassman, said many students had their masks down or off entirely.
“The way kids here are being treated is sick. It’s not healthy for anybody to be here at the moment. They should have done a lot more to keep these kids safe and not [let the breakout] be a superspreader like it was,” said the cadet. “It’s inhumane what’s happening and they won’t send the Corps home for whatever reason and are completely oblivious to what is happening.”
Bill Wyatt, a spokesman for VMI, said the school offers a unique experience and many of the institution’s traditions cannot be replicated online. “Breakout is the culminating event of a first year cadet’s time as a ‘rat’ and an important educational experience,” Wyatt said in an email.
Wyatt added that breakout events were held outdoors, with mask usage and social distancing. Cadets and staff were briefed before the event on safety guidelines, but “even if all protocols are followed perfectly, transmission can still occur,” he wrote.
Washington, from George Mason University, said he is worried about the rise in cases on his campus but is not alarmed enough to issue the kind of restrictions seen at U-Va. Ninety-five students and 26 employees on the Fairfax campus have tested positive for the coronavirus since the semester started last month.
The campus tested every student twice this week and is gearing up to pull off the same feat every week for the rest of the semester by March 1, Washington said. He estimates the school will administer nearly 10,000 tests weekly to students, employees and about 500 athletes, who are tested three times a week.
Last semester, the university tested about 1,000 people weekly, switching midsemester from nasal swab tests to saliva-based tests, which are cheaper to administer and can be processed on-campus, Washington said.
And although testing will be more common, Washington cautioned students this week to continue wearing masks and to avoid gatherings. He reminded students to complete daily health checks that officials use to detect the early signs of an outbreak.
“It’s just to remind people that we are not out of this yet. Don’t get too comfortable, don’t get too relaxed. Let’s double down on what we did previously,” Washington said in an interview.
Many of the warnings being issued at George Mason are to prepare students for the variant first identified in the U.K. Eleven incidents of the variant have been identified so far in Virginia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal agency expects the strain to be the predominant variety of the virus by March.
The variant has appeared on several U.S. campuses, including the University of Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley. An outbreak of the original strain of the virus and a cluster of variants at the University of Miami spurred a 10-day ban on large in-person gatherings, with the exception of face-to-face classes.
At Virginia Tech, the variant has not been detected so far on the Blacksburg campus, but officials are telling students to assume that it has already arrived.
“By this point in the fall, positivity was declining. It is now increasing,” Tim Sands, the university’s president, said Tuesday in a message to the community. He called the evolution of the virus “a complicating factor.”
Researchers have found the variant to be more infectious and some evidence suggests it can cause more severe symptoms than the original strain.
“We are seeing evidence among our student population that the prevalence of moderate symptoms is increasing,” Sands said, adding that the campus will double prevalence testing.
Other campuses have also noticed an uptick in cases. Virginia Commonwealth University has reported 346 cases among students since January. It took the campus almost three months to reach that number in the fall, data from the university show.
“It’s very tempting to feel like we’re out of the worst of this and, unfortunately, that just might not be true,” said Michelle Doll, an assistant professor in VCU’s School of Medicine and infectious diseases specialist. “Now is certainly the time to really go back to social distancing and make sure we are making good decisions.”
And it’s not just Virginia schools that are dealing with a surge. The University of Maryland at College Park announced Thursday it would limit in-person gatherings to five people – with the exception of in-person classes – following an increase in coronavirus cases on and around campus.
Seventy-seven U-Md. students and employees have reported contracting the virus since Monday, data shows, and officials have threatened additional restrictions if there is not a significant decrease in cases.
Recent developments have required schools to be particularly nimble.
“The thing about the virus is that it’s trying to survive, so it’s always changing,” Washington said. “We have to change when it changes.”