Coronavirus is surging in college towns. The worst spot? Texas

Molly Hennessy-Fiske
LUBBOCK, TEXAS - SAT. OCT. 24, 2020 - Car dealers Keith Kiser, 59, of Clovis, N.M., right, and Shane Scarbrough, 39, of Lubbock, left, tailgated Saturday as usual outside the Texas Tech stadium despite a local Covid-19 outbreak. "At this point in my life, I'm willing to take a few chances," Kiser said. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)
Texas Tech fans Shane Scarbrough, 39, left, and Keith Kiser, 59, tailgate Saturday outside the football stadium in Lubbock. "At this point in my life, I'm willing to take a few chances," Kiser said. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

As football fans tailgated without masks outside Texas Tech University’s 60,000-seat stadium in West Texas this weekend ahead of the Red Raiders’ homecoming game, it was easy to forget that Lubbock — a rural county of 310,000 — has one of the highest coronavirus infection rates in the country.

The outbreak at Texas Tech, which has infected at least 2,200 students, comes as the U.S. reported a national single-day record of new infections — 83,757 — Friday. Part of what's driving the national increase in infections has been a surge in college towns where restrictions have eased since students returned this fall. And nowhere is it more prevalent than in Texas — which has more infected college students than any other state in the country, 17,133, according to a New York Times database — and at Texas Tech itself, with more infected students than any other school statewide.

People in red Texas Tech gear walk toward an entrance to the football stadium
Texas Tech fans file into the Red Raiders' Jones AT&T Stadium, where they were required to wear masks until seated. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

As at many Texas high schools, canceling football wasn't seen as an option by officials at Texas Tech or other universities in the Big 12 Conference. On Friday, the Big Ten also started its season — but with empty stadiums.

At Texas Tech, though the traditional homecoming parade was called off, last year's king and queen still met this year's winners in person wearing masks for the crowning. And 15,000 fans, 25% of the stadium's capacity, were allowed to attend Saturday's football game, with tailgating OK'd for small groups outside.

Officials at Texas Tech, like those at other universities, say they’re trying to preserve as much of campus life as possible at the behest of students, parents and alumni.

“Students consider the culture of a place when they select a university. I also think this is important for the continued connection to alumni,” Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec said as he watched Saturday’s game from a suite atop the stadium, where masks and temperature checks were required. “We're trying to balance safety with some sense of normalcy.”

A group of tailgaters talk with a man sitting in a red golf cart
Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec and his wife, Patty Schovanec, center, talk to tailgaters outside the stadium Saturday. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

As COVID-19 has surged on college campuses, some have moved to reevaluate their responses. This month, University of Michigan students were ordered to stay home until election day by health authorities because they accounted for 60% of local infections. In upstate New York, the president of SUNY Oneonta resigned after 700 of its 6,000 students tested positive.

At Texas Tech, where 60% of classes have met in person this fall, it's full speed ahead, with Schovanec saying he hopes to expand to 75%, including hybrid classes.

“People have different levels of anxiety regarding COVID-19," he said. "We were very flexible.”

Joyce Zachman, executive director of the nonprofit Texas Tech Parents Assn., said she hears more concern from parents about students being forced to take classes online than about them catching COVID-19.

“It’s not the college experience that parents had hoped for their kids,” said Zachman, who’s asthmatic but still attended Saturday’s game, where fans sang the school fight song with its chorus of “Wreck ’Em!” and pointed their trigger fingers in the Texas Tech “guns up” victory sign.

Russ Smith, 49, a truck driver based near Fort Worth, traveled to tailgate Saturday with a group that included his son, a freshman attending his alma mater. They didn't wear masks, and he noticed the students were not maintaining social distance as they played cornhole and snapped selfies.

Workers in bright green jackets at the entrance to a football stadium
Officials at Texas Tech say they're trying to preserve as much of campus life as possible at the behest of students, parents and alumni. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

"There's some pandemic fatigue," he said.

Though studies this month show enrollment has dipped slightly at universities nationwide since the pandemic began, Texas Tech’s is up 4%, and applications for next year have increased 10%.

“I was going to do community college if it was all online,” said Emma Thompson, 18, a Texas Tech freshman from Boerne, Texas, during lunch at the student union Friday.

Across the table, classmate Major Thurman, 18, of Austin said his father had warned that if Texas Tech classes were all online, he wouldn’t pay the tuition. Thurman has since had a friend test positive for the virus, and his roommate had symptoms but tested negative.

“We have a lot of corona scares,” said Thompson, who joined a sorority and goes to bars with friends but said they wear masks.

Lubbock County ranked 10th in the country for per capita coronavirus infections this week, with 1 in 18 residents infected, at least 30% of them in their 20s. Because student testing is voluntary, the number of infections could actually be significantly higher. As in other college towns that have seen infections surge since students returned to campus this fall, most of the 175 people who have died of COVID-19 in Lubbock were older than 70, about 68%.

A press-box view of fans scattered throughout the seats of Texas Tech football stadium
Like several other schools in the Big 12 Conference, Texas Tech is selling tickets to its football games with capacity limited to 25%, or 15,000 fans at Jones AT&T Stadium. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

Lubbock is a medical hub amid the oil fields of West Texas, more than 300 miles from the nearest major city, but its hospitals have been challenged by the influx of COVID-19 patients. For nearly the past week, more than 15% of those hospitalized had COVID-19, a threshold set by the governor that local officials expect will soon force them to halt elective surgeries, close bars and reduce restaurant capacity from 75% to 50%.

“We’re on a trajectory to reach that trigger,” said Steve Massengale, a Lubbock City Council member and Texas Tech alumnus who owns the Matador, a Texas Tech-themed store across from the university's entrance.

Massengale said that he believes university officials have done all they can do to prevent the virus from spreading but that having in-person classes and football fans in the stands is vital given his business is already down by half because of the pandemic. Still, he said, students’ off-campus parties are concerning.

“We know that it does seem to be spreading at some of these small gatherings. They just don’t contemplate that they may be endangering other people,” Massengale said before attending Saturday’s game.

Of Texas Tech’s 40,322 students, 7,000 live in the dorms, with the rest living nearby. Although the university has isolated sick students at dorms and local hotels, it hasn't mandated testing of potentially asymptomatic students or shut down off-campus parties, although Schovanec said the university has worked with fraternities and Lubbock police to curtail them.

Critics say the school and local officials are more worried about their bottom line than lives and fear the COVID-19 outbreak will spread farther across Texas and beyond as students — many of whom live in major cities or out of state — head home for Thanksgiving.

“It doesn’t sound like Lubbock is doing its due diligence in terms of keeping its students safe,” said Corina Flores, 43, a Dallas healthcare worker whose 22-year-old son is studying nursing at Texas Tech.

Flores said she was aghast seeing this season’s Texas Tech football crowds on television.

“How are they allowing all these people to be there?” she said.

Flores was also shocked to read a Twitter page created by an anonymous Texas Tech student replete with videos and texts showing scores of students at parties without masks or social distancing, some of the gatherings sponsored by Texas Tech fraternities and sororities. At least one Texas Tech student posted a video on Twitter this fall in which she claimed to be partying after testing positive for the virus.

“What are they going to do when some of these parents come back and say you didn’t protect my child?” Flores asked.

Schovanec said that officials were aware of the Twitter posts and parties and that some student groups have faced discipline for violating COVID-19 safety guidelines. But, he said, “it’s difficult to control people’s behavior off campus.”

“I believe our student body has been responsible,” he said, adding that although he’s concerned about the case increase in the surrounding county, based on contact tracing, “the problem is certainly not Texas Tech University.”

Experts disagree.

A. David Paltiel, a professor of health policy at the Yale School of Public Health, said universities need to proactively test students to prevent those who are asymptomatic from spreading the virus.

A group of young children stand in a parking lot during the Texas Tech tailgate
With the holiday season approaching, experts worry that college students returning home could spread the coronavirus to family members. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers broad guidelines for universities to prevent and respond to the coronavirus, but many schools go further, Paltiel said. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has tested 20,000 students daily, he said, “identified them, isolated them and gotten them contained.” In California, Paltiel noted, UC San Diego has been monitoring wastewater for signs of outbreaks.

By contrast, Paltiel said, “Most of the schools in Texas and Florida have been shielding themselves in the CDC guidelines and saying we don’t have to do anything. They’re just hoping that everything that could go wrong will go right.”

He said voluntary coronavirus testing at Texas Tech and other schools wasn’t helpful because those without symptoms probably won't get tested.

“Waiting until you have symptoms with a disease that’s such a silent spreader is like waiting to call the fire department until a house is ablaze,” he said. “Who is a voluntary program going to bring out? The worried well or the kid with the runny nose. That’s not who I want. I want the asymptomatic spreader. I want the kid toddling off to do Jell-O shots in an unventilated room.”

Paltiel said universities also need to test students before allowing them to return home for Thanksgiving, when they could expose relatives.

“What’s concerning to me is schools will say as long as you don’t have symptoms, you’re good to go. You could be sending home silent spreaders,” he said. “I’m not sure people understand how much risk a returning college student poses to elderly relatives.”

More than 80% of Texas Tech students come from more than 200 miles away, twice as far as the average U.S. college student, Schovanec said. Most are from Texas, thousands from the state’s largest cities: Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston. Hundreds also come from out of state, primarily New Mexico (744) and California (408).

“Honestly, I feel we shouldn’t be here on campus,” said freshman Timothy Odusola-Stephen, 18, while eating lunch with two fellow freshmen from Houston at the student union Friday.

The trio said they had been partying and planned to party this weekend and to return home for Thanksgiving.

Sophomore Tayvion Wheeler, 21, an information technology major, lives off campus and has tried to isolate, but he has one class in person. He was debating how to return safely to Dallas next month.

“I have a grandmother that stays at my mom’s house. I’m scared to go back home,” he said by phone last week.

Wheeler also worries there will be further outbreaks after the holidays when students return to campus.

“People are going to get things and then come back,” he said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.