Despite Mass Testing, University Of Illinois Sees Coronavirus Cases Rise

Sep 3, 2020
Originally published on September 9, 2020 8:45 am

A university that many researchers have touted as a potential model for reopening campuses to in-person classes is hitting some bumps in the road. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had implemented a mass coronavirus testing program for staff and students in an effort to keep virus spread on campus under control. But on Wednesday, the university reported rising numbers of positive coronavirus cases and announced a two-week lockdown for undergraduates.

Students were asked to avoid travel and limit in-person interactions, with exceptions for a handful of "essential activities," including mandated twice-weekly COVID-19 testing, in-person classes and grocery shopping.

The University of Illinois has one of the largest mass testing programs of any American institution. The school is conducting, on average, between 10,000 and 15,000 saliva-based tests for COVID-19 daily, at times accounting for more than 2% of all testing done in the U.S. The decision to clamp down on students' movements calls into question whether any amount of resources and safety precautions makes it safe to reopen college campuses.

"We cannot test our way out of this pandemic," Rebecca Lee Smith, an associate professor of epidemiology and a member of the team behind the university's mass testing plan wrote on Twitter. The two-week lockdown doesn't mean the testing program failed, she wrote in another tweet: "We found a problem early, we had the data to identify the cause, and we have a chance to turn this around."

In an email to students on Wednesday, college administrators blamed the high case count on student behavior. "The irresponsible actions of a small number of students have created the very real possibility of ending an in-person semester for all of us," the email said.

"We stay together. Or we go home. It comes down to these next two weeks. It is up to you."

Emily Garti, a junior studying nutrition, says, "I was expecting an email like this to come eventually." She works for the university promoting mask wearing and social distancing on campus.

"It was just kind of a little disappointing as to how soon into our school year it did happen."

She's thinking of the next two weeks as a challenge. She says, U of I students are pretty competitive, so she's hopeful. "We've got two weeks to kind of prove ourselves ... two weeks to show that we are able to stay here."

In just under two weeks of classes, there have been more than 700 positive COVID-19 cases on campus, according to the university. The school's researchers had anticipated about 700 positive cases for the entire fall semester, but if current rates continue, the school of about 50,000 students could see as many as 8,000 positive cases by the end of the term, according to a statement from the university.

At a press conference held over Zoom, Nigel Goldenfeld, a physics professor who contributed to the school's reopening plan, said the campus's models had already anticipated parties and people not wearing masks — but they did not take into account that students would fail to isolate, that they would not respond to local health officials' attempts to contact them or that students who had tested positive would nonetheless attend and host parties.

Wednesday's letter to students called out specific cases in which students had failed to work with local health officials on contact tracing, and one instance where a student posted a video to social media attempting to show how to manipulate the campus app that tracks testing results. About 100 students and organizations are facing discipline — including suspension — for behavior over this past weekend, including for hosting parties and for breaking quarantine, according to the note sent to students.

"It sucks," says freshman Noelle Johnson, while sitting on the campus' main quad. She's not looking forward to being stuck in her dorm without air conditioning. "But I'd rather struggle for two weeks than the rest of my college years."

She's worried that if the campus can't get the virus under control, it may be years before things go back to normal. Johnson says she was aware that the University of Illinois was known as a party school before she enrolled, so she isn't surprised there have been large gatherings.

"I knew that just because we were gonna be testing a lot, didn't mean that [students] were gonna stop partying," she says. And she also isn't surprised that the university is cracking down now.

"The system can't work if the people aren't working with it."

Lauren Migaki contributed to this report.

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College campuses report high numbers of coronavirus cases. The University of South Carolina reports more than 1,000; the University of Alabama, more than 2,000. Two weeks in, the University of Illinois reported more than 700 cases, which is more than they expected for the semester. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been on the road visiting college campuses. Elissa, good morning.


INSKEEP: OK. Road trip in pandemic times - how does that even work?

NADWORNY: Well, we take a lot of precautions. We wear masks. But, you know, it's so important to kind of see what's happening on college campuses. This fall is going to be really important to the financial and the health of a lot of people in a lot of places. And as we've been out here, you know, we've seen those cases. We've seen those - the virus is on many college campuses. The big thing we've seen out here is that testing is super important, and a lot of schools are not doing mass mandatory testing. Testing is super important 'cause it let schools know the extent of their virus. That came up at the University of Illinois where they're mass testing a bunch of staff and students. They're doing 10,000 to 15,000 tests a day. They found hundreds of asymptomatic cases, mostly among undergrads.

INSKEEP: And this is one of the universities you visited on the road trip. So what are you hearing from students?

NADWORNY: Well, a few are resistant but many are proud, even grateful. We tagged along as Emily Garti, a junior studying nutrition, went for her twice-weekly test.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So what you'll do is you'll take your mask off, you'll open up the test tube, and you will drool into the test tube. And you want it - the more, the better.

NADWORNY: Filling that tube with spit is harder than it looks.

EMILY GARTI: My mouth is dry but - hardest part always.

NADWORNY: Garti says it often takes a few attempts.

GARTI: I always think of lemons, and it makes, like, me have more saliva in my mouth.

NADWORNY: For many students now in their third week of classes, it's become part of their routine.

GARTI: Right when I wake up, I put it in my schedule of things I need to do for the day, and COVID testing is the very first thing on that list.

NADWORNY: Students need a negative result in order to get into buildings on campus and to go to class. The university has invested a lot in this testing program. At $10 a test, that's about a million dollars a week. And they've staked their reputation on its success.

BECKY SMITH: Everybody was - this is an amazing test. This is wonderful. We want the test. We want the test. But testing is not enough.

NADWORNY: Becky Smith is a lead epidemiologist here. For this to work, people need to wear masks, to socially distance, to isolate and quarantine. Without compliance, the positive case numbers go up. And that's exactly what's happened. Last week, the numbers spiked.

SMITH: So it's not necessarily partying. We accounted for the fact that students will party. We just assumed that they wouldn't party knowing that they were infected and infectious.

NADWORNY: All it takes is a handful of students to spread this virus on campus.

SMITH: So if we don't see improvement and we kept going, there will be deaths.

NADWORNY: So the university went into a two-week lockdown. The human behavior aspect of infection control, it's a more recent issue for Smith. Much of her work has been controlling disease in cattle.

SMITH: Mathematically similar - the only difference is that cattle generally don't make their own decisions about if they're going to follow guidelines or not.

NADWORNY: Cows don't get invited to keggers. But even with rogue student behavior, Smith says their mass testing, it allowed them to catch the spread on campus before it becomes a crisis.

SMITH: Other places are seeing the tip of the iceberg. We're seeing the whole iceberg. And it's big. But we're finding all the cases.

NADWORNY: Now they can work to contain them.

OLIVE: Hi. This is Olive calling from the Champaign Urbana Public Health District. I am calling in regards to your recent COVID test.

NADWORNY: A few miles from campus in a conference room with lists of known outbreak locations on the walls, contact tracers take to the phones.

OLIVE: So far, I've called three people, and I haven't been able to contact them yet, so I've just left voicemails.

NADWORNY: This has been an ongoing problem, but now when Shelbey Dorsey (ph) leaves a voicemail, it comes with a warning.

SHELBEY DORSEY: You may be reported to U of I administration, and disciplinary action may follow if you do not follow back with us.

NADWORNY: Dorsey is a student here, too. She is studying theater, and she's often the first human a student talks to after they test positive. Her job is to set folks at ease, like when a student sheepishly tells her they've been at KAMS, a popular student bar known for a bright blue drink.

DORSEY: We're not here to chastise you. We all say like, oh, I miss going to the bars. Like, I'm not here trying to judge you.

NADWORNY: The contact tracers say more people are calling back. And after a week of lockdown, the numbers of positive cases are going down. Becky Smith, the epidemiologist, says it's too early to tell if that good news is enough. If it doesn't improve, they're in a real bind. Sending students home could potentially spread the virus further. Plus, if they can't figure this out now, when will they? Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Champaign, Ill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.