Editor’s Note episode 16: COVID-19 clusters

| Staff Reporter

Since the start of the spring semester, the University has reported three large clusters of COVID-19 cases and adjudicated at least 117 student conduct cases relating to COVID-19 violations. Listen to freshman Kamala Madireddi discuss the state of COVID on campus with News Editor Orli Sheffey and Senior News Editor junior Ted Moskal. Copy Chief junior JJ Coley wrote our theme music.

“Editor’s Note episode 16: COVID-19 clusters” can also be found on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Soundcloud.

The transcript of the episode can be found below. It has been lightly edited for clarity:

KAMALA MADIREDDI (0:09-1:27) It has been a year since the world shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While both the national trend of declining COVID-19 cases and vaccine rollout provide a light at the end of the tunnel, the continued spread of the virus is still a concern on campus, especially as large clusters of COVID cases are being reported at Washington University.

I’m Kamala Madireddi, and you’re listening to Editor’s Note, Student Life’s weekly podcast breaking down our biggest stories with the reporters and editors that covered them.

Since the start of the spring semester, the University has reported three large clusters of COVID-19 cases on the Danforth Campus COVID-19 Dashboard, and the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards has adjudicated at least 117 student conduct cases relating to COVID-19 violations.

I talked with Senior News Editor junior Ted Moskal and News Editor freshman Orli Sheffey, who covered the recent COVID clusters, about the rise in cases due to student gatherings both on and off campus.

Sheffey noted that students’ willingness to comply with COVID guidelines has changed throughout the course of the year.

ORLI SHEFFEY (1:28-1:48) Some administrators have commented on there being just a general lack of compliance with COVID-19 guidelines. Dr. LeBlanc had described how students at universities across the nation are just getting tired of following COVID-19 guidelines, and are having larger unmasked gatherings.

TED MOSKAL (1:49-2:04) I just think people are getting tired of restrictions and not being able to see their friends because we’ve been in this for a year. Obviously, it’s not a good thing, and people should not be breaking these guidelines. But if you’re looking for reasons for why people are doing these things, I think, yeah, people are just worn out.

KM (2:05-3:07) This semester, the University has been updating the COVID-19 Dashboard with clusters of positive cases that are a result of student gatherings. On January 28, a group of graduate students gathered for dinner, resulting in a total of 12 students testing positive and 29 other students being required to quarantine.

The second cluster, which took place from February 4-6t, involved a series of five off-campus gatherings. With many of the same undergraduate students gathering in groups of 10 to 15, a total of 19 students tested positive and 58 other students were required to quarantine.

On Wednesday, a third cluster, which occurred from February 12-19, was reported on the dashboard. This cluster involved multiple unmasked gatherings with many of the same students socializing in groups of four to 10, resulting in 30 positive cases and 48 additional quarantined students. So, who’s taking part in these gatherings?

OS (3:08-3:34) I think we’ve seen this across all different grades. The first gathering, or the first cluster that was reported on the dashboard on January 28, actually involved a group of graduate students. The second gathering, which involved several off-campus gatherings, involved the same undergraduate students. So I do think that age is not necessarily a determining factor.

KM (3:35-3:47) In an interview with Moskal and Sheffey, Rob Wild, interim vice chancellor for student affairs, explained the reasoning behind the University’s decision to report clusters on the COVID-19 Dashboard starting this semester.

ROB WILD (3:48-4:18) So, on Friday, February 12, two weeks ago, right after we were dealing with that first cluster, we made the decision in that meeting that we wanted to put more information out on the dashboard about the nature of the clusters, so that students could be more informed. We thought from a public health perspective that the more information we put out about how we knew about COVID being spread, the better we would be about combating rumors. And so that was why the decision was made to add that then.

KM (4:19-4:45) Moskal and Sheffey reported that while the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards has adjudicated a total of 649 COVID-19 violations during the 2020-2021 academic year, 117 occurred during the spring semester. Wild noted that while the number of conduct violations were consistent between the fall of 2020 and 2019, the nature of these cases varied greatly due to the pandemic.

RW (4:46-5:22) To give you a comparison in the fall of 2019, we heard, you know obviously there was no COVID so none of these are COVID cases, but we heard a total of 650 cases. So the numbers were fairly consistent, but it was almost all COVID, you know, much fewer of, you know, you might guess that many of our, our COVID cases are related to alcohol or the effects of alcohol on other behavior. And, you know, the upside of COVID is we didn’t have any alcohol violations. The downside is we had a lot more COVID violations, and that pattern seems to be continuing for the spring.

KM (5:23-5:28) I asked Sheffey if there were any changes in the disciplinary process over the course of the year.

OS (5:29-6:08) It seems like the disciplinary policies have been pretty consistent. There’s just a wide range of policies for different types of violations, you know. If someone just doesn’t wear a mask, they could just receive a warning, which is just to say that they would receive a harsher penalty if something happened again. But there are much higher violations, or as the University says, egregious violations that could reach the level of suspension or expulsion. And while no one has been suspended or expelled yet, there were several cases that were considered for suspension or expulsion.

KM (6:09-6:17) Despite the continued spread of COVID, especially through clusters, Sheffey mentioned that the University is not planning to increase the frequency of surveillance testing.

OS (6:18-6:50) I think we’ve seen some frustration on behalf of students and parents, specifically the parents. They’ve had numerous petitions to the administration, asking them to increase the frequency of testing, because that’s something we’ve seen across many peer institutions. Because they’re only testing every two weeks, it will be harder to contact trace as quickly and stop the spread of COVID-19. But it seems like the University’s response is just the same that it’s always been, telling students to mask and social distance.

KM (6:51-7:02) How do you think the COVID-19 violations from the Student Conduct Office influence students’ willingness to come forward to report COVID symptoms, and how do you think this impacts the contact-tracing process?

OS (7:03-7:40) Something that all the administrators that we spoke with stressed was that the conduct process is completely separate from the contact tracing process, and that because of confidentiality, no medical records, no contact tracing information will actually be used for any conduct proceedings, rather, the Student Conduct office will only adjudicate cases that are reported through the COVID-19 concerns portal, Residential Life, WUPD or from other individuals that learn of an incident that potentially violates University policies.

KM (7:41-7:44) Throughout your reporting for this piece, was there anything that surprised you?

TM (7:45-8:10) I thought it was really interesting hearing from Rob Wild the effort that was made to sort of create, I think he called it like a mini Department of Health, where they basically told St. Louis City and County that they’ve hired a contact tracing team that just focuses on Wash. U. students. They basically created a service that is particular to the Wash. U. campus and is kind of its own little bubble of contact tracing.

OS (8:11-8:54) I think what the clusters are showing us is just how quickly COVID-19 spreads, and especially with potentially new variants being here. Students who are just gathering in what they think are smaller groups can end up turning into COVID-19 outbreaks. The last cluster that was posted today, that occurred from February 12-19, was just multiple on mass gatherings. But a lot of the groups were just from four to 10, which some students might see as relatively small, but that still resulted in 30 positive cases, 48 additional students instructed to quarantine. So, one decision really could have a ripple effect and result in a major outbreak.

KM (9:01-9:08) Editor’s Note will be back next week to break down another developing story. For Student Life Media, I’m Kamala Madireddi.

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