Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic last March, the Ingham County Health Department has recorded more than 16,000 cases of coronavirus. While a number of factors contribute to various spikes and outbreaks in the county, the Michigan State University community has proven to be a prominent contributor.
Ingham County is made up of 12 towns and cities, including Lansing and East Lansing. Around 3,400 of total Ingham County cases are students or faculty of the university. This does not include positive cases from individuals tested outside of Ingham County or self-reported positive cases.
Before students returned to classes at MSU on Sept. 2, 2020, the entire county had only recorded around 2,400 cases in total. That makes up the first third of the pandemic timeline.
But once the student population returned to East Lansing, whether to live on or off campus, Ingham County’s cases spiked, increasing 72% in the first month of classes alone.
MSU’s recorded cases spiked as well.
Within the first two weeks — between Aug. 31, 2020, and Sept. 14, 2020 — there were 1,314 new cases of COVID-19 associated with the university, around 90% of the cases Ingham County experienced in that first month.
By Dec. 12, 2020, Ingham County reported around 11,000 cases of coronavirus.
The other two-thirds of the pandemic have produced 84% of the 16,500 recorded COVID-19 cases in Ingham County, and a 541% increase since the early cases in September.
Ingham County Medical Director Adenike Shoyinka said that the significant jump is directly correlated to students returning to campus and confirmed that specifically large outbreaks were linked to the university.
“MSU hasn’t been the only outbreak, but they are the most significant,” Shoyinka said.
In total, 30% of the recorded cases in Ingham County were those between the ages of 20 and 29, while the second highest percentage of COVID-19 cases, at 16%, fell into the age demographic of ages 10 to 19. Shoyinka said that although there may be some younger children contributing to those cases, the most likely answer to such a high percentage within the age demographic is the older side — those who are between the ages of 17 and 19.
While the age demographic of 20 to 29 is already high, young adults may be contributing to between 30% and 46% of the cases in Ingham County, according to Shoyinka and reports from Ingham County.
Weekly COVID-19 case count trends decrease in the spring semester
Even with on-campus housing occupancy increased to 3,800 students compared to 2,500 in the fall semester, Dan Olsen, deputy spokesperson for MSU, said that in comparison to past years, there are still far less students on campus.
In a typical semester, there are usually 15,000 students living in university housing. There is not a known number for how many students are living in housing off-campus in the area.
Classes on campus, such as labs or those that need an active learning space, have been drastically cut back. Olsen reported that there are now only around 400 classes happening in MSU buildings on campus, compared to the usual 22,000.
The university also pushed class meetings back a week after a request from the state of Michigan to see the impact of students and many others returning to their homes on COVID-19 cases, according to Olsen. Instead of classes beginning officially on Jan. 11, they began on Jan. 19. In-person classes were also pushed back a week to Jan. 25.
In order to take part in classes or live on campus, students must participate in the Spartan Spit Test program and adhere to the MSU Community Compact. The requirements in the compact include wearing an appropriate face covering, physical distancing, committing to proper hygiene and health practices, and self-monitoring.
Since July 27, 2020, there have been around 16,408 weekly clinical tests provided. The average weekly positive percentage rate for the tests is currently 9.50%.
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In the first two weeks of spring semester classes, the positivity rate was between 13% and 16%, according to MSU clinical testing data. This is higher than the current Ingham County positive test rate at 5%, as reported by The COVID Act Now API.
Since classes began this spring, there hasn’t been as high of a spike in cases. Ingham County still experienced a jump in nearly 2,500 cases within the first month, with 759 of those associated with MSU students and faculty.
The weekly trend of the number of cases also decreased. In the first week of fall semester classes there were 640 positive COVID-19 cases associated with the university but this semester there were only around 122 cases within the first week.
The week of Jan. 25 and Feb. 1 still reached 122 and 223 cases per those seven days, but Shoyinka said there should continue to be a downward trend throughout the semester due to more concise and preemptive testing partnered with MSU and the vaccine.
Any student at Michigan State can join the Spartan Spit Test program and get results within one to two days of their saliva sample drop-off.
“When those cases are identified earlier in the infection, people are isolated quicker,” Shoyinka said. “Therefore, there isn’t as much opportunity to spread the infection before they become significantly symptomatic.”
Since December, more than 7% of Ingham County’s population has been vaccinated fully and almost 13% have the first dose, according to local COVID-19 data. That helps to keep the community transmission lower, Shoyinka said.
Shoyinka also said that although the vaccine is given to those with priority right now, like health care workers, long-term care residents and staff, or frontline workers, there are MSU students who fall into that category who are being vaccinated. This helps to mitigate risk within the MSU community, which was not an option in the fall semester.
Knowing that high coronavirus case numbers have been associated with the university, Shoyinka still said it’s hard to quantify whether or not students should have come back to East Lansing for the university.
She said she isn’t just worried about the people getting sick with an infection in the context of the pandemic. There are negative impacts on quality of education, community, mental health and more through the isolation the pandemic has created. There are also those who are safer and in better hands within the confounds of the university.
“Some people, school is their home,” Shoyinka said.
Shoyinka said it is about making sure that there are measures in place to create a safe return for Ingham County and those who live in it.
There are eight weeks left in the semester and Ingham County has continued to see a rise in cases, but the MSU administration and Ingham County Health Department are working to control the spread.
“It’s up to all of us,” Olsen said.
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