College campuses have been massive sources of COVID-19 transmissions. Here’s how schools are working to reduce outbreaks.

Robyn Sidersky and Elisha Sauers, The Virginian-Pilot
·6 min read

The most recent outbreak at Old Dominion University started with a small gathering outside Norfolk and ended with at least seven students getting the coronavirus.

The first infection was confirmed at the university’s own testing lab. Then, staff traced that case to several others. But it was enough to warrant testing all 116 students living in a single residence hall.

Each college outbreak causes a ripple of testing, tracing, quarantining and isolation. It’s a labor-intensive exercise that has become the norm at many higher education institutions in the pandemic era. To date, there have been 77 outbreaks on college and university campuses across Virginia, associated with about 4,800 cases.

Similar to nursing homes, jails and other environments coined “congregate settings,” campuses have been ripe for the virus. Close living conditions in dorms and parties have made them easy targets. And while young adults are generally at lower risk of being hospitalized or dying of COVID-19, campus outbreaks can pose serious public health concerns for the communities they’re in.

Pandemic analysts at the University of Virginia said while Virginia’s cases are dropping, colleges have remained a source of massive transmission. A few weeks ago, half of the state’s top 10 hot spots were in ZIP codes associated with colleges and universities, including Charlottesville, Richmond, Lexington and Blacksburg, according to the UVA Biocomplexity Institute.

In a recent UVA outbreak, the school netted over 730 cases in a single week. University officials said they traced some cases to a weekend of fraternity and sorority rush events, but there were also generally a lot of lapses in prevention policies. Epidemiologists identified the U.K. variant, a more contagious version of the coronavirus, in that surge.

With most students not eligible for vaccination yet, the task of preventing outbreaks at universities is even more challenging. Dr. Danny Avula, state vaccine coordinator, said inoculating on college campuses will be an area of focus eventually, but only when Virginia shifts to Phase 2, he said.

That’s likely still a couple of months away a time less likely to benefit students and faculty because it could come just as spring semesters are ending, or even after them.

“If college kids get it, the concern is that they’ll spread it to vulnerable people,” Avula said. “As long as we’re vaccinating vulnerable people, then we’re in pretty good shape.”

Public health officials want college students to use traditional prevention methods, such as distancing at least 6 feet from others and wearing masks, while they wait for shots. If certain young adults have high-risk health factors that qualify them for vaccines, they encourage them to get immunized as soon as they can.

Sydney Johnson, a nursing student at ODU who has been helping administer vaccines in the community, said younger people have a harder time complying with the recommendations to isolate from their peers. She thinks college students should be allowed to get the vaccine sooner.

“If, you know, 18 to 22 year-olds are running around doing goodness knows what, then it would be lovely to have them vaccinated so they’re keeping themselves safe, and that they’re not spreading the virus,” she said.

The way university leaders are approaching prevention varies from campus to campus. Many offer forms of testing, and have reduced capacity in on-campus housing and in classes. Most offerways for students to take their courses completely virtually.

At some schools, like ODU and Norfolk State University, everyone has to use an app that acts as a symptom checker. They can’t use certain facilities, like the dining hall, unless they get “all green check marks.”

ODU’s lab can do random testing and rapid same-day testing of symptomatic students and employees. It was set up before the fall semester and has ramped up to be able to run up to 1,700 tests per week, said Greg Dubois, ODU’s vice president for administration and finance.

Students attending in-person classes and living in residence halls are required to undergo regular testing, including when they got to campus at the start of the semester.

Norfolk State also has testing through its student health center, but only for students who are symptomatic or think they have been exposed. They also do surveillance testing twice per week for students living on campus and commuter students.

Schools have set up isolation and quarantine residences for students who live on campus and either have a positive test or are waiting for results.

Another tool ODU has employed: needlepoint bipolar ionization units, part of the heating and cooling systems that clean the air supply. Over time, buildings become saturated with ions, which search for particles to cling to, including COVID-19, and disrupt its surface protein and render it inactive, said Giovanna Genard, an ODU spokeswoman.

These units, which cost $78,000, are in two residence halls and their annex buildings, along with the Diehn Fine & Performing Arts Center and the Batten Arts & Letters Building.

ODU officials say they have volunteered to host a vaccination clinic, whether it be an open site for the public or a closed one just for its students and staff.

“We are prepared and as soon as we get the go-ahead from (the health department), we would be happy to be a site,” Genard said.

Christopher Newport University, which has been holding many in-person classes without virtual options, had its largest outbreak last month, with more than 200 cases.

Kevin Hughes, vice president for student affairs, said in a town hall to parents of students, there is no evidence of transmission in the classroom, but there are examples of large gatherings that resulted in people having to go into isolation or quarantine.

“Many of our students are trying to do the right thing,” he said “But they won’t go quite as far as they need to.”

Officials at Norfolk State, which is a historically Black university, know their population is more vulnerable. But Leonard Brown, the vice president for student affairs, said that’s one motivation for students who are taking the precautions seriously.

“That responsibility and knowledge (of) the impact COVID has had on minority populations — we’ve been keenly aware of that and concerned and had a heightened awareness about that from the beginning,” he said.

With spring breaks, the concern has increased for many colleges and universities that students will leave the region and return with the virus.

For UVA, where the rate of positive tests has recently dropped from about 4.5% to 2%, that risk has led to school leaders canceling traditional spring break in favor of break days interspersed throughout the semester.

But that might not be enough to deter some.

“Unfortunately, we have heard reports of students considering taking ‘unofficial spring break’ trips together,” officials said in an email sent to students March 4. “Please don’t.”

Robyn Sidersky, robyn.sidersky@pilotonline.com, 757-222-5117

Elisha Sauers, elisha.sauers@pilotonline.com, 757-222-3864