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Education

Most St. Louis Area Colleges See Lower COVID Numbers

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File photo / Kayla Drake
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St. Louis Public Radio
Lindenwood University is seeing lower COVID case numbers this spring after a spike in the fall. Numbers are staying lower at most area colleges.

Coronavirus cases are leveling off at most colleges and universities in the St. Louis region after several reported spikes following winter breaks.

St. Louis University may be an exception.

Administrators there are warning students to stop partying or face tighter restrictions on campus activities. Yet so far, cases of COVID-19 are not wildly outpacing numbers the school experienced in the fall semester.

SLU has reported 123 positive cases among students and staff since Jan. 20, and in the past week, 7.6% of tests have come back positive. Last semester’s positivity rate was 6.4%, and 544 people tested positive.

Dr. Terri Rebmann, an epidemiologist who is part of SLU’s COVID response team, said unlike during most of the fall semester, students have started attending parties or socializing without wearing masks.

“What we're seeing are little pockets of disease transmission, because students are making poor choices,” she said.

SLU is testing 10% of its on-campus population each week. Washington University and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville are also conducting surveillance testing, while other institutions in the St. Louis area are not. Wash U is testing all residential students every two weeks and has reported 51 cases among that group since Jan. 11.

SIUE tested all students prior to the beginning of the spring semester. Further testing is voluntary, but the college is enticing students to get tested once a week by offering vouchers for on-campus purchases and entry into a raffle for a fall semester tuition waiver worth about $4,500.

There have been a few small outbreaks in the campus community, said Michael Schultz, SIUE’s COVID response coordinator.

“I've noticed it off-campus. I've got three different apartments off-campus just in the last two weeks, that have all kind of shared the coronavirus,” he said. There was also an outbreak on the men’s basketball team over the winter break.

So far, SIUE is reporting a seven-day average of 1.25 positive cases among about 500 administered. About 4.6 tests each day were positive at the start of the semester, and its case numbers are lower than surrounding Madison County as a whole.

“We're winning the race in that way,” Shultz said.

It’s costly to run an on-campus testing clinic, especially for institutions that don’t have medical schools as Wash U and SLU do, at a time when colleges are grappling with dramatic hits to revenue.

Webster University has reported 20 cases so far this semester, which spokesman Patrick Giblin said is slightly better than the fall. While Webster University is not requiring students to be tested, Giblin said other measures are working.

“What we are doing, though, and this is where we think we've been incredibly successful, is everyone has to take a self-assessment if they want to come on campus,” he said.

Lindenwood University’s main campus in St. Charles dealt with a “rapid increase” in cases toward the beginning of the fall semester. Lindenwood has reported 14 cases so far in February after posting 52 cases in January. Those numbers are self-disclosed cases, in which a student or employee alerted the university after testing positive.

The University of Missouri-St. Louis’ case numbers are similar to the fall, though it also only shares self-reported figures. It was reporting 13 active cases among students for the first two weeks of February.

Higher ed institutions throughout the St. Louis region welcomed students back to campus in the fall under reduced dormitory capacity and a blend of mostly online coursework with some in-person lessons or labs. Spring semesters are playing out largely the same way.

The American College Health Association recommended for the spring semester that colleges regularly test all students to help reduce viral spread.

“Evidence continues to mount in favor of frequent testing of campus constituents on a recurring schedule,” the ACHA said in a brief.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said random sampling of college students and staff “could increase the timeliness of outbreak detection and response.” But the CDC also said any testing plan needs to be paired with other mitigation measures, such as social distancing.

SLU’s interim vice president for student development, Debra Rudder Lohe, warned in a letter to students last week it’s witnessing “flagrant disregard” for health standards.

Lohe warned students to stop throwing parties or dining halls, the fitness center and lounges will be closed.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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