Partying students caught the university unprepared. Did they also infect the rest of the community?
From the December, 2020 issue
In June, the U-M released its plan for a "public health-informed fall semester." It would be shorter, with no mid-semester break and on-campus instruction ending at Thanksgiving. Classrooms, laboratories, and work spaces would be reconfigured. But the "Ann Arbor campus will open its residence halls for housing and dining, and will offer many on-campus programs and activities that enhance the college experience," president Mark Schlissel wrote. "As the nation's top public research university, we have an opportunity to show the world that this can be done."
Schlissel, an immunologist, was frank that new infections would always be a risk until there was a vaccine or effective therapy. But he expressed "cautious optimism" that "basic public health strategies including social distancing, minimizing out-of-area travel, wearing face coverings, washing hands frequently, symptom screening, clinical testing, contact tracing and quarantine [will] add up to a highly effective way to limit spread of this illness, allowing students to pursue their Michigan education."
In August, 6,000 students moved into the residence halls and many more into off-campus apartments. Fraternity, sorority, and co-op houses filled up. And some students partied like it was 2019. In mid-October, the Michigan Daily reported that "about fifteen" sorority members came down with Covid after attending a September fraternity party.
The count of weekly infections on the university's online coronavirus dashboard never passed forty over the summer. In mid-October it hit 411, on the way to a monthly total of more than 1,300. Ninety-nine percent of the cases were undergraduates, 61 percent of whom were living off-campus.
University contact tracers needed to reach everyone who'd been near the infected students to warn them to go into quarantine. But after weeks of rising case numbers, "we were exhausted," recalls Jennifer Nord, the senior environmental health specialist in charge of case investigation and contact tracing for students on the Ann Arbor campus. Her team of about ten full-time tracers aimed to reach 75 percent of possible contacts within
twenty-four hours, but with so many infections, she says "we didn't know how we were going to possibly reach all of these students."
So Nord reached out to the Washtenaw County Health Department and its team of about fifteen investigators and tracers for help. "All of the public health nurses and the sanitarians and everyone that they have on their team just jumped right in," she says. "I felt like they just saved us."
Public health officials also acted decisively to limit the spread. First, the university ordered the entire Mary Markley residence hall into lockdown to control an outbreak there. Soon after, the WCHD issued a stay-at-home order for all undergraduate students, on and off campus.
With the entire undergrad student body effectively quarantined, the combined contact tracing teams caught up within a week. "I think it was on November first that they were able to provide some metrics that indicated that the numbers of the students on campus [with Covid] were going down," says Nord.
But while infections on campus stabilized, they were spiking off-campus. The WCHD's dashboard tracked 500 the first week in November and 739 the second week--an all-time record. By mid-month, thirty-seven county residents were hospitalized with Covid-19, the most since April.
Even before the students returned for the fall semester, social media posts had warned that they could bring the pandemic with them. At the end of October, someone hung a homemade banner over the M-Den on Main St. that made the accusation directly: "UM brought this outbreak here."
Almost since the university's founding, townies have expressed mixed feelings about the sometimes rowdy hordes of young people it brings. But never before have they been shunned as plague bearers.
Yet even some students agreed. In early November, the Michigan Daily published "An Open Letter to Ann Arbor" by LSA junior Andrew Pluta. "I'm sorry for the incorrigible damages that University of Michigan students have caused your community," he wrote. "I'm sorry that some of us have been unable to wear masks for a few hours with friends, while you wear a ventilator indefinitely, wondering if you will live to see your friends and family ever again."
In fact, contact tracing revealed that the widespread belief that students were a major vector of transmission to the wider community was false. "There's not much indication of off-campus spread," Nord says. "We can see where the students are touching the community and how often that happens. And, to be honest, it's not nearly as often as we thought."
Pluta's self-indictment was an exception. Far more often, the Daily shared students' frustration over what they saw as a lack of clarity and consistency about safety measures and testing early in the semester. In a November interview with the Daily, Schlissel explained that delays in test results had made testing ineffective, so "commercial testing in the early days of the semester would not have helped us."
Faculty, too, were sharply critical of how the pandemic was handled; in September the faculty senate passed a symbolic vote of no confidence in Schlissel. Graduate student employees, residence hall advisors, and dining hall workers all raised safety concerns during short-lived strikes.
The administration fared better in its own survey. Approximately 14 percent of the faculty responding in October indicated that the virtual medium was ineffective for what they taught. But 63 percent somewhat or strongly agreed that they felt confident in the strategic direction of the university, and 85 percent said the semester was going as well as or better than expected.
And by the simplest metric--the goal to hold in-person classes till Thanksgiving--the university's plan nearly succeeded. "I think that we deserved, as a community, a chance to try our very best to have a good mix of remote, in-person and hybrid classes, and to have as many people as possible remain healthy and make it through the end of the semester," Schlissel told the Daily. "So I don't regret trying,"
The caseload for Nord's team remains high. She is continually training new team members to replace those who burn out or have to return to their regular jobs. With infections at record levels, the caseload for the county contact tracing team also ballooned. In early November, reports WCHD public information officer Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, they had more than 450 active contacts and were adding fifty to 100 new, non-household contacts per day.
Overwhelmed, the department announced it would prioritize investigations of cases involving children, seniors, and individuals at higher risk. Rather than waiting for a contact tracer's call, it's urging anyone who believes they may have been exposed to Covid-19 to self-quarantine immediately.
But what finally cut the fall semester short was not infections among the university's own students or even the local community. It was a terrifying resurgence of the virus statewide. On November 15, governor Gretchen Whitmer announced a three-week "Pause to Save Lives."
"If we don't act now, thousands more will die, and our hospitals will continue to be overwhelmed," Whitmer warned. "We can get through this together by listening to health experts once again and taking action right now to slow the spread of this deadly virus."
Narrower than the spring shutdown, the "pause" nevertheless closed restaurant dining rooms, theaters, and all high school and university classes. It took effect November 18, three days before the scheduled end of on-campus instruction.
The university reminded students living in campus housing that they were "expected" to get tested before leaving for their permanent residences; those living off-campus were "strongly encouraged" to do so. A posting on Reddit described a quarter-mile-long line outside the Michigan Union as they lined up to be tested.
As planned, classes and exams will continue remotely until December 18. But though some in-person classes will resume on January 19, many students will not be back for winter term.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in May, Schlissel predicted that the winter term would look much like the fall. "Any decision we make for this coming fall is likely going to be the case for the whole academic year," he said. "What's going to be different in January?"
Quite a lot, it turns out. As criticism mounted in the fall, Schlissel, provost Susan Collins and vice president for student life Martino Harmon led a campus-wide engagement effort that included surveys, focus groups, and meetings with students, faculty, and staff, as well as consultations with Nord's team and WCHD leadership. And its approach to the winter semester will be far more conservative.
According to the winter plan, there will be "more serious consequences for those who violate public health policies ... Social gatherings of three or more on campus living in residence halls will result in automatic probation, and public health violations by students in quarantine or isolation housing would mean automatic University Housing contract termination. Off-campus students who are determined to have engaged in these behaviors would be referred to the Office of Student Conflict Resolution (OSCR), the Washtenaw County Health Department or both."
Labs and classes where in-person attendance is required for certification will still be held. While transmission in the fall was overwhelmingly in social settings, both faculty and grad student instructors expressed fears of contracting the virus in class, so next semester, no one will be forced to teach in person. And only students with in-person classes, or who have no other place to live, will be allowed in campus housing. The dorms will be "de-densified," with only single rooms.
"The university is encouraging all undergraduates to remain at their permanent residences next semester, including our students living off-campus," spokesman Rick Fitzgerald emails. "Public health data from this semester showed that the spread of Covid-19 was intensified in high-density, congregate-living settings like residence halls and high-density off-campus housing. High-density housing also contributed to more of our students having to quarantine or isolate themselves once a roommate tested positive."
While the move away from congregate housing seems justified given the rate of spread and poor compliance with Covid safety measures, the October survey found that many undergrads prefer some in-person instruction. If the winter semester were fully virtual, 8 percent said, they would take the semester off, and another 17 percent said they weren't sure.
Most, however, said they would like to remain in the Ann Arbor area. Fraternities and sororities expect to remain open. "We have no information saying that chapter housing is closing," says Nicole Banks, associate dean of students and interim director of fraternity and sorority life. "They'll remain open and try to de-densify, and they have strategies about what to do if someone becomes ill." And the Daily reported intense competition for winter-semester sublets.
Many parents support their students' desire to stay in Ann Arbor. According to an employee at a student housing management company who asked not to be named, they're expressing "a general sense of sadness, almost grief, because they feel like their kids have been robbed of their senior years of high school and freshman year of college."
But after being stuck with pre-pandemic leases this year, parents and students are less certain about next fall. This hesitancy is starkly reflected in renewal rates, which the employee says are down by two-thirds to three-quarters from a typical year. He's hearing from managers at other rental companies that instead of being fully leased by December, they are now only hopeful they may be fully leased by March of next year.
While the university can't control students in off-campus housing, it can regulate their use of its facilities. In the winter term, all who live on or frequent campus will be required to take weekly Covid tests--and this time, Schlissel says, there will be enough to stay ahead of the virus. "We're now at a capacity around 9,000 or 10,000 tests a week," he told the Daily in November. "And by the time the new semester begins, we'll be up to 12,000 to 15,000, and if we need to, we can go further than that."
[Originally published in December, 2020.]
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