A year in COVID-19: students infected, quarantined and vaccinated

| Senior News Editor

After the pandemic upended Washington University students’ lives in March 2020, the return to campus in the fall was filled with uncertainty. Here’s a look at the 2020-2021 school year by the numbers:

Students test positive

504 undergraduates, nearly 10% of the 5200 undergraduate students living on or near campus, tested positive for COVID-19 over the course of the school year. After 11 students tested positive upon arrival in September, cases remained low throughout the month, with zero cases detected on several days. In October, the University transitioned from the high orange alert level to the moderate yellow level, indicating stabilizing conditions on campus. 

But cases began to rise in mid-October. At the end of the month, the University’s alert level increased to orange, and cases began to exponentially grow throughout November. On Nov. 6, Chancellor Martin warned the community about “worsening conditions in the St. Louis region,” and on Nov. 14, the University detected 14 new positive cases—the highest number of new positive cases recorded in a single day. The University reached its highest number of active cases Nov. 25, with 60 students infected. 

While the number of positive cases started to decrease after the November surge, the spring semester brought new challenges: COVID-19 clusters. The first cluster recorded involved a group of graduate students gathering for dinner Jan. 28, resulting in 12 positive cases. Four more clusters were reported, involving multiple unmasked gatherings with many of the same students. From Feb. 4-6, a cluster led to 19 positive cases, from Feb. 12-19, a cluster led to 44 positive cases and two separate clusters from March 6 resulted in 12 positive cases. On March 12, Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Rob Wild emailed students with the subject line “A Plea For Your Help,” calling the COVID-19 situation “dire,” and imploring students to comply with contact tracers.

Although parents had sent numerous petitions to the administration throughout the school year calling for more frequent surveillance testing, asymptomatic students only had access to testing every two weeks. Yet, after five clusters were reported amid decreasing transmission rates in the St. Louis region, the University expanded surveillance testing March 19, allowing students the opportunity to get tested on campus more frequently.

Cheri LeBlanc, executive director of Habif Health and Wellness Center, wrote in a statement to Student Life that biweekly surveillance testing for undergraduate students was sufficient, and it allowed the University to save testing resources for vulnerable populations.

“We have confidence that the cadence of testing was adequate—our internal preliminary analyses suggested that more frequent testing would have prevented very few additional cases—this validated our efforts to conserve limited testing capacity so we could make it available to support vulnerable populations in the St. Louis community such as nursing home residents and those who are incarcerated,” LeBlanc wrote. “Recall that testing was a scarce resource early in the pandemic.”

As of April 23, 232 students—out of the 497 undergraduate students who had tested positive by that point—stayed in University isolation housing for 10 days, while the remaining students who tested positive isolated off campus. 


Students quarantine for exposure

While nearly a tenth of the undergraduate population had to isolate after contracting COVID-19, students who were unmasked or less than six feet apart for more than 15 minutes from students who tested positive were identified as close contacts and were then required to quarantine. Although freshman and sophomores living on campus were assigned single rooms, if one of their suitemates tested positive, they were required to quarantine because of the shared bathroom. 

For the majority of the school year, students identified as close contacts were required to quarantine for 14 days. Despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s release of revised guidance in December 2020 stating that quarantine periods could be shortened to seven to ten days, quarantine remained 14 days long throughout the fall and part of spring semester. On March 15, the University notified students in quarantine housing that they would be released after ten days, instead of 14 days, after an update in St. Louis County guidance. 

In line with the November surge, the number of quarantined students reached its high on Nov. 15, with 162 students in quarantine. As of April 23, a total of 600 students had been accommodated in quarantine housing on campus. 


Students break COVID-19 guidelines

Despite restrictions on gatherings and mask requirements to limit the spread of COVID-19, many undergraduate students were caught violating public health guidelines. The Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards processed 723 conduct cases related to COVID-19 this year with 531 cases occurring in the fall semester and 192 cases occurring in the spring semester. 

The penalties for COVID-19 violations ranged from a warning to consideration for suspension or expulsion. Of the 723 conduct cases related to COVID-19, 292 students were placed on deferred penalty housing probation, a figure equal to 40% of the conduct cases adjudicated. Four students were removed from Residential Life housing for COVID-19 violations, and six students were referred to the Student Conduct Board for suspension or expulsion, though none of those students were suspended or expelled. 


Students get vaccinated

Amid rising COVID-19 cases, required quarantines and student conduct violations, the spring semester came with what many saw as a sign of hope: vaccinations. Healthcare workers at the Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital began receiving vaccines at the end of December, and by April 9, all adults were eligible to get vaccinated in Missouri. 

Prior to April, many students found ways to get vaccinated. While some qualified for having pre-existing conditions or working frontline jobs, others took road trips to pharmacies with extra doses in rural Missouri.

On April 7, students were notified that they could register to get the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine on the medical campus. After 2050 community members had received the J&J vaccine, federal health agencies called for a pause on its distribution April 13, following the development of rare blood clots in six out of seven million recipients. In response, the University was able to secure a supply of Pfizer vaccines in partnership with Barnes-Jewish Hospital, and three days later, students began getting vaccinated with the two-dose vaccine at WUSM. As federal health agencies have since lifted the pause J&J, the University is expected to offer both the Pfizer and J&J vaccines to the community. 

Although the vaccination clinic at the medical campus is not expected to be the primary COVID-19 clinic for Danforth Campus faculty, staff and students, as of April 23, 1299 students and 1451 faculty and staff had received the vaccine through the University. 

With the vaccine now readily available in all states, the Washington University community remains hopeful that the fall semester will more closely resemble a normal college experience with in-person classes, gatherings and more. 

The data for this article was provided by Executive Director of Habif Health and Wellness Dr. Cheri LeBlanc, Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Rob Wild, Dr. Steven Lawrence, Executive Director of Residential Life Kawanna Leggett, Associate Dean of Student Conduct Sheryl Mauricio, Interim Senior Administrator at the School of Medicine Eva Aagaard and the Danforth Campus COVID-19 Dashboard. 

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