WU reports ‘dire’ COVID-19 situation on campus; expands surveillance testing

| News Editor

Although COVID-19 cases are decreasing in the St. Louis region, the Washington University administration notified students and parents via email about “very, very, troubling signs” relating to COVID-19, March 12, with surging positive cases and a widespread lack of compliance with safety guidelines.

A following email was sent Friday, March 19 announcing that walk-in surveillance testing would be available to any student worried that they were exposed to COVID-19.

With an email subject line of “A Plea for Your Help,” Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Rob Wild wrote in the email that “the situation we face now at the midpoint of the spring semester is dire” March 12. Wild acknowledged that while COVID-19 cases are decreasing in the St. Louis region, positive cases have been increasing on campus since January and the number of students in quarantine and isolation has remained high.

At a point approximately halfway through the semester, 178 undergraduate students have tested positive, a figure equal to 83.18% of last semester’s semester’s total undergraduate cases.

Since the University posted a notification of the University community’s third known COVID-19 cluster on the dashboard on March 10, the number of positive cases tied to this cluster has increased from 30 to 44 as contact tracing continues. Two new clusters related to unmasked gatherings on March 6 were also added, resulting in 12 positive cases and 25 students sent to quarantine.

Wild attributed the surge in cases to “a non-insignificant number of students who have just let their guards down completely.”

“Students have completely ignored the public health principles that we put in place for everyone’s safety,” Wild wrote in the email. “Too many students having parties or otherwise gathering, even in small groups, and not wearing masks. Several students have not been compliant or truthful with our contact tracers when called. Students who have been quarantined are putting pressure on our staff to be released early and in some isolated cases have violated our quarantine expectations.”

Wild said that in one case, a student temporarily left quarantine. He added that the administration is regularly hearing from students and parents who are questioning the University’s decision to require students exposed to COVID-19 to move into quarantine.

“I think people are fatigued and more willing to challenge the expectations,” Wild said. “It makes it harder for the staff when they are having to handle lots of calls from students and parents who don’t want to be in quarantine.”

While Wild said that he sent an email to students and parents “to encourage people to help us get this under control,” parent Suzanne Jacobs argued that a two-pronged approach involving more responsible behavior from students and more frequent testing from the University is necessary.

“Wash. U. is taking the approach of mostly relying on the students, and I do support that and scolding the students who have not been compliant,” Jacobs said. “However, this virus affects people who are totally compliant, so testing definitely needs to increase.”

Jacobs authored a statement to the administration, signed by more than 150 parents, explaining that parents are “increasingly alarmed at Wash. U.’s inaction on the matter of testing.”

“It is obvious to us that testing every 2 weeks is dangerous, as this allows for infections to go

undetected and spread,” the statement read. “It is now the case that rule-following students are having their Wash. U. experience ruined by the non-compliant…Wash. U. is not alone in this. But we have also seen that other colleges are meeting the challenge by increasing testing.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated guidance for testing and screening at institutions of higher education (IHE), Mar. 17.

“CDC’s IHE testing recommendations are similar to testing guidelines set forth by the American College Health Association, which state that all students and IHE faculty and staff be tested for SARS-CoV-2 at least twice a week, with results available within 48 hours,” the report read.

Wild, however, said that “one of [the University’s] infectious disease doctors did a fairly detailed analysis of our fall surveillance testing system, and it does not appear that an increase in surveillance testing would have prevented more cases.”

Wild pointed to Duke University, which despite testing students twice a week, had a major COVID-19 outbreak and had to implement a stay-in-place order from March 13 to March 21. A Duke spokesperson said that the outbreak is almost entirely linked to “unsanctioned fraternity recruitment events that took place off campus.”

Jacobs said that Duke’s outbreak does not show why increased testing is unnecessary but instead reveals why both prongs of her suggested approach are crucial: The University cannot rely only on testing or only on student compliance with public health guidelines.

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