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As thousands of students return to campus, COVID-19 threat looms

January 13, 2021
<p>Spartan Stadium has converted into a COVID-19 testing facility to allow students living on or near campus to get tested. The entrance to the testing center is located at Gate B. Shot on Sept. 23, 2020.</p>

Spartan Stadium has converted into a COVID-19 testing facility to allow students living on or near campus to get tested. The entrance to the testing center is located at Gate B. Shot on Sept. 23, 2020.

Photo by Lauren DeMay | The State News

As nearly 4,000 students prepare to return to university dorms and some in-person classes resume in the coming week, Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail addressed the incoming Spartans in a weekly Ingham County Health Department (ICHD) briefing on Tuesday, Jan. 12.

“We have to remember, that as a student, you’re stopping places, you’re working places and that exposes other people and those people might get terribly ill, or the people they give it to might get terribly ill, hospitalized or die,” Vail said.

Cases have trended downward in Ingham County since then, but the return of students to East Lansing last semester created a spike in cases.

On Sept. 12, 2020, all local students were asked to self-quarantine as 342 cases were affiliated with MSU. Just three days earlier, MSU fraternities failed to pass a moratorium against social events. On Sept. 22, the case number had skyrocketed to 1,250 connected to the university.

Vail commented on college students’ attitude toward COVID-19, saying that oftentimes, they are falsely optimistic that they won’t get the virus. Vail said it’s important to follow the university’s COVID-19 procedures.

“Hoping that we understand the importance of doing all of the things that the university has asked of students, which is masking, avoiding gatherings, working with the health department to make sure that contract tracing and all of that happens appropriately,” Vail said.

This semester, MSU will be requiring all on-campus students to participate in the COVID-19 Early Detection Program, or Spartan Spit Test, as part of the MSU Community Compact. University spokesperson Dan Olsen said that the program, which was voluntary last semester, saw success.

“We’re hopeful that this will, again, be able to identify the presence of the virus within our community sooner, so we can act quicker to control any spread,” Olsen said.

This comes along with a requirement for students to verify that they have taken the Influenza vaccine or are exempt from doing so. Olsen has previously said that this measure is to protect students from experiencing worsened symptoms from being infected by both Influenza and COVID-19.

The compact will be enforced for both on- and off-campus students — requiring face coverings, social distancing and maintenance of personal hygiene at all times on campus. Those that are found in noncompliance with the compact, or local and state health directives, will be subject to the student conduct process, possibly resulting in suspension.

“It’s upon us all to do our part to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Olsen said. “As we said in the fall, personal responsibility is a key part in mitigating the spread. We’re urging students, and in some cases requiring students, to comply with some of these directives we’ve laid out.”

Olsen pointed toward early detection and mitigation as the university prepares for possible increased cases.

“We have a lot of measures in place to be able to, if there is a rise in cases, identify those cases so that we aren’t contributing to community spread,” Olsen said. “... We’re also asking students to continue to do the things that we know are essential to mitigating spread prior to their time coming to campus, the things like an enhanced physical distancing period.”

Those aged 20-29 make up the highest proportion of Ingham County’s COVID-19 cases, at 31%, while those aged 10-19 make up the second highest proportion at 14%. Despite this, Vail remains hopeful that things will be different for college-aged students at the start of the spring semester. 

“There is going to be a testing requirement, which will help quite a bit, making sure people get quarantined so we don’t have spread of illness before people even know they’re ill,” Vail said. “... It’s wintertime, people are going to be indoors, we've tried to make sure that people understand that large parties are really a bad idea.”

Currently, East Lansing remains the county’s biggest hotspot. Vail also said they will continue to monitor for large gatherings and social events, and that she hopes students take the threat of COVID-19 seriously.

“We have also seen deaths in 20-year-olds,” Vail said. “We’ve seen deaths in 20-year-olds in this county.”

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