CORONAVIRUS

Iowa universities report hundreds more COVID-19 cases

Iowa State University added another 325 in a week

A sign marks the beginning of the COVID-19 testing line and check-in for students moving into campus housing at Lied Rec
A sign marks the beginning of the COVID-19 testing line and check-in for students moving into campus housing at Lied Recreation Center at Iowa State University in Ames on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — All three of Iowa’s public universities reported more cases of COVID-19 among students, faculty and staff Monday, following a weekend in which several national media outlets highlighted the state and its regent schools in reports on coronavirus outbreaks across American higher education.

Iowa State University added another 325 self-reported cases among students, faculty and staff in the last week from both on- and off-campus testing, bringing the total since Aug. 1 to 1,475 The total includes the 175 students who tested positive during mandatory residence hall move-in checks.

University of Iowa — which has been reporting new COVID-19 numbers more frequently than the weekly updates from Iowa State and University of Northern Iowa — on Monday added another 175 new self-reported cases among students and employees since Friday. That brings the campus total to 1,589 only two weeks into the semester.

UNI tacked on another 10 cases from Friday’s update, bringing its total since starting classes Aug. 17 to 115.

The three universities, which have continued with hybrid learning options even as other campuses nationally with fewer cases have moved entirely online, are reporting different numbers in different ways, as the state Board of Regents has left it up to each campus.

Iowa State is providing a breakdown of self-reported cases from both on- and off-campus testing; positive rates from on-campus targeting testing, which checks those with symptoms or close contact with a positive; numbers of students, faculty and staff in quarantine and isolation; and percent of residence hall space available for sick or potentially infected students.

UI is breaking down new and total numbers by students and employees and indicating how many residence hall students are in isolation and quarantine. Its numbers include both on- and off-site testing, but the university doesn’t separate the totals.

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UI also is not providing a positive rate for those tested on campus or a number of tests administered to date.

UNI is sharing both its positive rate and number of new cases by week, but it’s not breaking down the data by students and employees. That concerns some faculty who want more information, not only related to demographics but to self-reported cases discovered through off-campus testing.

“UNI continues to claim they cannot report data in groups smaller than 10 because it reveals identifying information,” UNI’s faculty union leader Becky Hawbaker told The Gazette. “I say, how does knowing there is even one faculty/staff member with COVID revealing anything? It’s one out of a couple thousand of us.

“How is knowing a daily student total of five reveal anything?” she said. “It’s five out of 9,500 students, or five out of 20 tested in a day … It doesn’t reveal anything about anyone’s identity or privacy.”

The universities also have used different tactics in compelling students to comply with mitigation measures and to self-report — with ISU rolling out a new social-distancing policy threatening suspension and urging the campus that self-reporting a positive test is mandatory.

The other schools, although willing to take more severe measures, have urged voluntary compliance.

With positive cases continuing to swell, Iowa’s university campuses have faced growing pressure to move all instruction online, where it had been since mid-March when COVID-19 arrived in Iowa. But they have not indicated plans to do so, reporting instead that administrators are monitoring a list of metrics that would trigger them to nix in-person classes.

Those metrics include classroom capacity, residence hall space, testing availability for symptomatic people and personal protective equipment supplies, among other things.

In a campus message Friday, UI officials said despite a disappointing spike in cases early on, both Johnson County and UI “are seeing improvement in the number of daily cases.”

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After 11 straight days of new cases numbers in the triple digits, Johnson County over the weekend began reporting 24-hour cases totals under 100. On Monday, Johnson — home to UI — added 71 cases for a total of 4,570.

Both Story and Black Hawk counties — home to ISU and UNI, respectively — added 27 new cases for a total of 2,911 and 4,024.

All three, though, also reported administering far fewer tests than in recent days.

UI — which CNN featured in a story on its COVID-19 response and which the New York Times highlighted in its higher education coronavirus coverage over the weekend — on Monday reported 97 residence hall students are in self-isolation and 15 are in quarantine. Iowa State — a focus of some of NPR’s COVID-19 coverage — isn’t breaking down its isolation and quarantine numbers by residence hall students and instead gives overall numbers of faculty, staff, and students, reporting Monday that 389 are in isolation and 919 are in quarantine.

UNI is reporting 18 students are isolating in its residence halls and 75 are in quarantine in the halls.

Both UNI and ISU students went to class Monday in their hurry to end the semester entirely the day before Thanksgiving. Whereas those schools started the fall semester a week earlier, UI kept the original academic calendar — including the Labor Day holiday — although it plans to move into virtual-only mode after Thanksgiving.

That means — unless campus leaders pull the plug sooner — Iowa’s public university students have about 11 weeks of hybrid instruction left this semester.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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