Editor’s note: Haley, a UNCW student interviewed for this article, asked that only her first name be used because she fears stigmatization due to her positive Covid-19 test.
WILMINGTON — Haley drove to Raleigh in mid-July to see her mother, who was hospitalized in an intensive care unit with an illness unrelated to the coronavirus. She followed the hospital’s safety guidelines, and other than that trip, she said her only excursions in the prior days had been a one-time grocery run and work shifts at a veterinary clinic.
Three days after visiting her mother, Haley woke up with a fever, then suffered from chills and intense chest pain in the following days. She called the campus health clinic at UNCW, where she is a student, and told them she needed a Covid-19 test.
Eight days after Haley was tested, a doctor called to inform her she was Covid-19 positive. The doctor believed she got the virus while visiting her mother in Raleigh, but contact tracers thought it was more likely she was exposed in New Hanover County, Haley said.
“I was feeling a lot of guilt. I was freaking out thinking that I had infected so many people,” Haley said. “That’s the part that has been really scary, is I thought I was doing everything right but still ended up with it.”
Haley was diagnosed in late July, when UNCW had only a handful of positive cases on its radar. Since July, UNCW has reported 323 positive cases among students, and 10 cases among faculty and staff; most are recent, with 273 student cases and 7 faculty cases still active.
UNCW on par with universities that have closed campuses
In the past month, three N.C. universities — East Carolina University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and N.C. State University — have bailed on in-person instruction for at least the foreseeable future, converting to an online-only class structure. Despite persistent criticism from the student body, and apparently being on the same track for increasing Covid-19 cases, UNCW currently has no official plans to make a similar decision.
In the week leading up to UNC-CH’s campus closure decision on Aug. 17, UNC-CH reported 166 new cases; in the week of Aug. 31-Sept. 7, UNCW reported 158 new cases (and then over 50 more since then). UNC-CH had reported four clusters of concentrated cases at the time of its announcement. To date, UNCW has reported six clusters.
UNCW began classes on Aug. 19, nine days later than Chapel Hill, and its undergraduate population is at around 14,650 students, which clocks in at around 76 percent of Chapel Hill’s undergraduate population.
Haley’s work shift at the veterinary clinic last weekend ended late in the night, and on the way back to her off-campus house, she saw “a bunch of wicked young college kids, just all parking their cars along the streets,” making their way into house parties outside the boundaries of campus, she said.
“I feel like a lot of people don’t know how easily you can get it, because I thought I was doing everything right, and then I still got it,” Haley said. “I’m very worried for all of the students who are on campus right now, because I don’t feel like they are going to be as efficient and proactive in trying to make sure that they’re not getting this virus.”
Next week, the university will mandate the wearing of masks in all public spaces, said Chancellor Jose Sartarelli on a Zoom call with faculty.
Cases climbing among the young
Throughout the summer, UNCW officials were communicating with leaders at the New Hanover County Health Department, as both entities hoped that a collaborative relationship would strengthen their ability to slow the spread of the virus. Their relationship was bolstered on Aug. 7 by an agreement that allows for the exchange of patient information between the university and health department. The agreement fortified local contact tracing programs by increasing the resources, specifically the names of Covid-positive individuals, made available to the health department, which spearheads such efforts.
Carla Turner, assistant health director for New Hanover County, said conversations between the health department and UNCW officials have increased in frequency and now occur daily.
“We were keeping an eye on the increasing number of 18-to-24 year old positives in New Hanover County,” Turner said. “As we watched that number continue to rise, and through our case investigation and contact tracing determined that there was some social gathering happening amongst students in the community, we reached out to UNCW.”
Turner said during a Labor Day weekend phone call between the two entities, UNCW presented its now-underway plan to have double-occupancy rooms on campus converted into singles, Turner called the plan “a really good first step to try to separate some of the contacts that we’re seeing amongst students.”
Although the county and university are swapping case information and patient data, contact tracers still don’t have a crystal-clear method of pegging a Covid-positive individual as a UNCW student.
“The only way we are going to know that is when we call and talk to them and they tell us that they are,” Turner said. “What we’re doing is not punitive. We are just trying to protect this community as a whole.”
The information contact tracers receive is only as good as the Covid-positive individual is willing to provide, Turner said.
“One of the speed bumps we’re running into is that folks that we’re calling aren’t being completely forthcoming with information,” she said.
One month ago, the 18-to-24-year-old demographic accounted for 26% of Covid-19 cases in New Hanover County, Turner said. As of last week, the 18-to-24-year-old population accounts for 34% percent of positive cases in the county.
“In that age range of 18-to-24, we are seeing a steady increase of positives, as we see a slow decrease in the 25-to-49-year-old age range,” Turner said.
On the morning of Sept. 10, James Winebrake, UNCW’s provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, sent out a mass email to university faculty.
He acknowledged the de-densification protocols implemented earlier in the week — having first-year students in double rooms make the difficult decision of figuring out who gets to stay and who has to leave the dorm — “increases the complexities that faculty are facing in their courses due to student absenteeism related to COVID,” Winebrake said in the email.
“There is, of course, another option — and that is an administrative directive to move ALL classes online … However, I believe strongly in the principle that faculty are in the best position to determine how to deliver their course content, and I am not advocating for an administrative directive to move all classes online at this time.” he wrote.
From his computer webcam, Chancellor Jose Sartarelli addressed UNCW faculty earlier this week in a Zoom meeting of the faculty senate, the legislative body of university professors.
“The past few days have been more stable but we had heard from our folks at the local health authority, and they were getting concerned by the fact that our numbers are going up and the numbers for the county are going down,” Sartarelli said. “And so we discussed it and we came to the conclusion that perhaps another step in our effort would be to de-densify somewhat, somewhat more than we had been doing before. A lot of the positives that we had been getting were from the dorms next to the student village.”
According to internal emails, after a UNCW press release mentioned the health department in relation to the “de-densification” decision, blame and questions were directed toward county health officials. New Hanover County communications staff told UNCW comms staff that in future press releases, if the health department was going to be cited, the county would like prior notice.
“We would definitely like to be informed and allowed to provide edits on communications that mention the health department directly,” Chief Communications Officer Jessica Loeper wrote to a UNCW media relations official.
[Editor’s note: UNCW is currently operating with an interim chief communications officer after CCO Janine Iamunno went on medical leave in early July]
On Aug. 28, Philip Tarte, the county’s health director, forwarded a UNCW coronavirus-related press release to the department’s preparedness coordinator, Lisa Brown.
“I was not aware of the dashboard that is linked in the release,” Brown responded, referring to UNCW’s public data dashboard that “represents confirmed COVID cases among UNCW students, faculty, and staff.”
“In reviewing the data in the public-facing reported cases, I am concerned about the timeliness of reporting these cases to NHC as that is not matching up with what I see in our cases,” Brown wrote.
Two health department staffers from the county were placed at UNCW student health recently, to further integrate and fortify the joint-contact tracing apparatus, Turner said.
Dr. Katrin Wesner-Harts, UNCW’s interim associate vice chancellor for student affairs, said she is grateful for the county’s assistance as UNCW navigates through its decision-making process.
“People have been dealing with this for months now and we all need to sort of stay with it, and not give up because that’s going to play an important part,” Wesner-Harts said.
Back on the Zoom call, Sartarelli talked about new mitigation efforts currently in the works.
“Once this is done, next week we’re going to be talking to them, all of them, and demanding a little more stuff,” the chancellor said. “And the stuff that we’re going to be demanding is the wearing of masks everywhere, and even when you’re sitting outside with your friends.”
After Sartarelli finished his update, Provost James Winebrake took over, empathizing with professors on how uprooting a significant number of on-campus students could affect the faculty’s ability to teach.
“This is going to be challenging. We can’t kid ourselves. There’s going to be possibly a few hundred mostly freshmen who will be leaving campus,” he said.
Professor Aaron Wilcox chimed in. “I just want to stress again, the difference between a temporary pivot for faculty to provide online instruction materials, and to effectively have to teach an entire second course for the entire remainder of the semester,” he said. “That is a giant ask, and I understand their need for de-densification, but that’s a lot to put on the faculty.”
Winebrake responded: “There aren’t a lot of easy answers here, but we’re doing what we think we have to do, and in consultation with the county health officials, what we need to do.”
What would it take for UNCW to ‘pivot’?
To inform a potential decision on canceling in-person classes, UNCW is following a seven-point plan of different metrics — access to supplies such as personal protective equipment; adequate staffing; input from county partners; adequate access to testing; the number of active positive cases; adequate isolation/quarantine space; and guidance from different state authorities.
In the past two weeks, according to the UNCW dashboard, 280 active cases were reported in the community. Since July, 333 total cases have been reported.
When asked about the pivot plan, and what the specific number of active positive cases is that would warrant a campus closure, a UNCW spokesperson said, “A variety of these factors will help inform the decision when to pivot from in-person to online, if needed. As the pivot plan was being developed, we consulted with the New Hanover County Public Health Department.”
When asked if New Hanover County public health officials have confidence in UNCW’s ability to continue this semester as-planned, without needing to transition to an online-only format, a New Hanover County spokesperson said, “Public Health is hopeful that UNCW’s decision to move students to single rooms will help slow the spread of the virus by decreasing density and the close-proximity of student living.”
The county spokesperson added that UNCW has never been asked by the county to make a transition away from in-person classes.
“Public Health’s consultation has involved, and continues to include, helping UNCW develop a plan that was flexible, including mitigation options, based on data and trends. Any actions by UNCW are part of their options in their plan,” she said.
Provost Winebrake sent an emailed statement when asked about how UNCW officials are quantifying the risk assumed by the university as it continues operations. “Each campus is different, and certain strategies may work well on one campus but not on another. Thanks to great work by our faculty and staff, and great effort by the vast majority of our students, UNCW is responding to conditions caused by the pandemic as efficiently and effectively as possible,” the statement said.
“We certainly understand that this virus spreads rapidly and that the situation on our campus could evolve quickly. We are approaching each day with a flexible mindset, and we are prepared to alter our plans as needed to continue supporting our educational mission in conjunction with the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff and the community.”
Haley, the UNCW student who tested positive for Covid-19 in July, said the unexpectedness of her diagnosis makes her wary of UNCW’s ability to continue operations on its current path.
“As far as what goes on on-campus, I don’t know, but it’s the stuff that goes on off-campus that is obviously concerning,” she said. “There’s just so many unknowns that we don’t know about this virus, that I don’t think it’s safe to have students congregating in classrooms. I just really don’t think that’s a good idea.”
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