Over the fall semester, the campus community of West Virginia University has seen a dance between the school’s public health messaging, the actions of the student population and the spread of COVID-19. This week has been the latest chapter of this saga as coronavirus cases multiply nationwide and across the state.
On Tuesday morning, students and faculty found a University-wide email in their inbox with the headline urging them to “be vigilant and follow COVID-19 guidelines.” The email was in direct response to WVU reporting 60 positive cases over a three-day period this past weekend.
For the last six weeks, WVU has consistently reported a number of daily positive COVID-19 tests in the single digits.
“It’s an increase but it’s not the large spike that we saw before,” said Carmen Burrell, director of Student Health Services.
Cases spiked among the campus community in early September and in-person classes paused for several weeks. At the peak of the September spike, a thousand students and faculty were in quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure and 400 individuals were in isolation after testing positive for the coronavirus. As of Nov. 10, there are 346 individuals in quarantine and 97 in isolation.
Each of the first several weekends of the semester, Carrie Showalter, director of the Office of Student Conduct, said her office would process dozens of reports of large gatherings. After the temporary pause of in-person classes, these reports have slowed down, Showalter said.
“That certainly has curved,” she said. “That certainly has gone down.”
Showalter views the decreased number of reports as a positive indicator, she said. As the weather turns colder, student gatherings move inside where they’re less likely to be reported and she said she isn’t totally convinced students are following the guidelines.
She said she remains hopeful that students have had a “change in culture” and “that there’s this understanding of how serious this is.”
Based on contact tracing, the spread of COVID-19 isn’t occurring in the classroom, but at social gatherings, Burrell said. She said transmission occurs among pandemic-fatigued students who let their guard down.
With an increased public health message, Burrell said she hopes to see cases go down before Thanksgiving break. The University is also offering free testing the week before the break for students returning home.
During the semester, the goal had been 2500 tests per week but recently increased to 3000 tests a week, Burrell said. She stressed the importance of testing for symptomatic individuals.
“Sometimes, especially when people are young and healthy, they might disregard a simple symptom that they think might be a cold or an allergy symptom,” Burrell said. “But sometimes those can be presenting symptoms of COVID, and I would encourage anyone who is having any of the symptoms listed for COVID, per the CDC, reach out to be tested right away and anyone who has had a close COVID-19 exposure to be quarantined.”
Sample testing students living in residence halls or who participate in the performing arts or athletics is one of the cornerstones of the University’s strategy to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Showalter said the Office of Student Conduct is dealing with a number of students who have not complied with mandatory sample testing.
“The messaging now with students is: Please comply with the testing,” she said.