After making a few national and statewide headlines for the wrong reasons, Georgia College is experiencing a leveling out when it comes to COVID-19 cases among students and staff.
Numbers were at their worst the week of Aug. 20-26, when 378 positives were reported by the university. Since then though, the new cases curve has declined sharply. As of Friday’s report, new cases had been in the single digits 12 out of 17 days this month with one “zero reported cases” day on Sept. 12. Reported cases throughout September sat at 108 Friday, which is less than one-third of the week-long spike that took place in late August.
Measures have been in place on campus to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus since before students returned. Now with classes in session, classrooms are socially-distanced and everyone is expected to wear some type of face covering while on campus. Signage is also posted encouraging students and staff to wash their hands frequently.
So why were cases so high in those first couple of weeks students were back on campus? Epidemiologist Dr. Damian Francis, an assistant professor of public health at Georgia College, gave one possible reason during a Thursday phone interview with The Union-Recorder.
“Usually, the rate that you will see on any reopening is going to be reflective of what is happening in the community or communities that your constituents are coming from,” Francis said referring to students’ home counties. “Within that first two weeks, a lot of students were positive coming back to campus, but didn’t recognize it until they got on campus and got tested. I think what we saw in the first two weeks was more of a reflection of what we would call ‘imported cases,’ or cases that did not happen on campus.”
While there could be some validity to Francis’ claim, proving it would take very robust contact tracing, something he pointed out that a university like Georgia College is not set up to handle. Other larger institutions with integrated medical schools or schools of public health may be more apt to conduct, but even the state Department of Public Health has had to hire temporary contact tracers.
Georgia College has, though, in recent weeks begun administering COVID tests to its students and staff to keep the virus from spreading further around campus.
“Universities aren’t hospitals or clinics, so we aren’t set up to do testing,” said Francis. “But in the wake of what is happening globally, the university felt that moving in that direction was beneficial although its a costly, labor-intensive venture.”
Case data among GC employees also seems to back up Dr. Francis’ assertion that students could have brought COVID to Milledgeville from their homes. While student positives are added pretty much daily, employee cases have only been coming in every few days for the most part, and in much smaller numbers. As of Friday’s report, COVID cases among employees had not yet hit 30 overall, and that’s going back to June when some workers returned to campus to prepare for the fall semester. That shows a disconnect between what’s occurring on university grounds during class time versus what students do with their own time. While some may have carried COVID with them from home, the spread among students can also be attributed to parties and gatherings at downtown bars. The university came out in August saying that in its limited contact tracing it learned that some students likely picked up the virus at such get-togethers. GC President Dr. Steve Dorman has implored students through multiple campus-wide emails and announcements to refrain from attending crowded events and establishments so campus operations may remain on track.
Francis shared that he did not have a role when it came to tracking COVID in the early stages of the return to campus as an epidemiologist. That has since changed.
“I looked at the data and thought to myself that we weren’t reporting the data well,” he said. “We weren’t tracking the cases in the usual epidemiological way. Now we’re taking more of a control approach. Before we were just collecting the data and reporting it, hoping the policies we put in place at the outset would work. To some extent they have worked, but now we’re going a little bit deeper.”
The University System of Georgia (USG) oversees the state’s 26 universities and decided to send students back to campus for the fall. Asked if he thought that was the correct course given what has happened since, Francis replied, “We have learned from some of the mistakes we have made in the past in dealing with pandemics and complex humanitarian crises. One of the things we have learned is that to rob a generation of the opportunity for education is not something we can do. That could lead the country into another Great Depression, and we cannot afford that. I think the students are as safe on-campus as they would have been at home, or even safer.”