US asks universities not to send Covid-infected students home

Number of virus cases on campuses continues to spiral

September 3, 2020
Two students standing in social distance wearing face mask
Source: iStock

With US universities emerging as a leading driver of coronavirus spread nationwide, the Trump administration is urging campuses to keep their infected students rather than send them home.

In a private meeting with the nation’s governors and later on national television, administration health experts said that evicting students after outbreaks would push the nation’s world-leading case count even higher.

“It’s the worst thing you could do,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC News.

“Keep them at the university in a place that’s sequestered enough from the other students,” Dr Fauci said. “But don’t have them go home, because they could be spreading it in their home state.”

The administration’s position suggested growing tension with US colleges, which are facing widespread criticism for inviting students back to campus this fall for mostly online classes, and then watching those young people congregate for parties and quickly spread the virus.

US college campuses already are responsible for at least 26,000 cases at 750 institutions, tied to 64 deaths, according to a running tally by The New York Times.

Several colleges have delayed student arrivals or moved to online formats as a result of infection outbreaks, and a small number – led by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – have sent students home.

The nation’s leading higher education lobby group, the American Council on Education, faulted the White House for pressing schools and colleges to reopen for the autumn semester without making clear how that should be done.

The administration’s initial request for colleges to house their own infected students, as reported by The Daily Beast, came in a telephone call involving the nation’s governors and another top White House coronavirus adviser, Deborah Birx.

Dr Birx, a global health expert from the State Department, told the governors that every university president “should have a plan for not only testing but caring for their students that need to isolate”, the report said.

Universities, however, had not directly heard that or any other guidance from the administration in at least a month, said Terry Hartle, the senior vice-president for government relations at the American Council on Education.

“I understand why the administration might have made that comment on that call, but it’s not a terribly efficient or effective way to reach out to campuses,” Dr Hartle said. “We remain anxious to work with the administration as much as possible on these issues, but they have not made too much of an effort to engage us.”

Campuses, meanwhile, continue to report large-scale outbreaks. At least 66 institutions have registered more than 100 cases apiece, according to the New York Times tally.

The University of Alabama has reported more than 1,200 cases at its flagship campus in Tuscaloosa. Other leaders in the Times count include UNC with 835 and the University of Central Florida with 727.

The Trump administration told US colleges earlier this summer that international students must be sent home when institutions move to online-only teaching, in what the administration admitted was part of a broader strategy to force a quick reopening of US businesses. It later retreated after being sued in federal court by hundreds of colleges.

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