US campuses counting hundreds of new virus infections

With students just arriving, institutions quickly find parties and outbreaks

August 17, 2020
Large crowd of people illustrating crowdfunding for university activities
Source: iStock

US universities already are reporting hundreds of new coronavirus infections as students have begun gathering for the autumn semester and promptly celebrating at off-campus parties and gatherings.

The biggest outbreaks include the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with about 190 students and staff testing positive; and Oklahoma State University and the University of Tennessee, with about two dozen each.

Large student gatherings have been shown in videos from other campuses, including Oklahoma State, the University of North Georgia, Villanova University and the University of Alabama.

James Phillips, an Oklahoma State graduate now serving as assistant professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University, said that a video showing a large student party at Oklahoma State was “infuriating”.

“Schools that behave similarly will be 100 per cent online by October,” Dr Phillips, the chief of disaster and operational medicine at his university’s hospital, wrote on Twitter.

The student parties and Covid outbreaks are amplifying doubts about the strategy across much of the US higher education sector to reopen their campuses, even with many courses being offered in online formats.

The US is among the least successful industrialised nations in fighting Covid, regularly suffering 1,000 deaths per day for much of the past month.

US universities, which in many cases have opened earlier than colleges and whose students are considered easier to control, already have had to quarantine thousands of their students.

At the same time, however, Yale University has reported advances in diagnostic technology that are raising hopes for rapid and widespread testing for coronavirus.

The tests could be ready within weeks, cost only $10 (£8) each, and offer results within three hours at accuracy rates similar to those of standard nasal tests, Yale officials said.

Yale’s product, known as SalivaDirect, could be a “game-changer that will reduce the demand for scarce testing resources”, Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for health heading the government’s Covid-19 testing efforts, said in a statement.

Other colleges, meanwhile, are trying lower-tech innovations. Carthage College and Penn State University are among institutions giving their students sniff tests, regarding them as a quick-result complement to other testing methods.

And the demand for college sports could play a role in fighting virus spread. At the University of Alabama, football players and their team leaders joined the condemnation of photos showing hundreds of their fellow students, mostly without masks, outside restaurants in Tuscaloosa.

Alabama is renowned for its college football success, and is among the leading teams still hoping for an autumn season worth an estimated $4 billion in revenue to colleges nationwide.

“We’ve got to do better than this for each other and our campus community,” Greg Byrne, the director of athletics at Alabama, pleaded on Twitter.

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