IOWA CITY — With the number of new COVID-19 cases spiking across Iowa’s college communities — and the New York Times reporting Story and Johnson counties among the hottest spots for new cases in the country — Iowa State University leaders Monday said another 503 students, faculty, and staff tested positive during its second week of classes.
The Ames-based university on Monday also was reporting 749 members of its campus community are in isolation — a 10-day period during which sick or positive individuals have to stay away from others. Another nearly 800 members of the ISU community are in quarantine — a 14-day period meant to keep isolated close contacts of positive cases.
More than 420 members of the ISU community have been released from either isolation or quarantine since Aug. 1, according to newly-released ISU data.
At the University of Iowa in Johnson County officials on Monday reported another 329 students and employees had tested positive for the coronavirus through Friday, bringing the campus total to 935 after just one week into the semester.
Among those who self-reported a positive test at UI were 78 residence hall students in isolation and 17 residence hall students in quarantine for having close contact with a positive case.
Iowa State’s 500-plus new cases last week add to the 130 identified during its first week of classes and 175 positive cases found during residence hall move-in — bringing its cumulative positivity rate for on-campus testing to 18.5 percent since Aug. 1.
Looking just at last week, Iowa State’s positivity rate of 28.8 percent was more than double the 13.6 percent rate from week one.
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Story County, home to Ames and Iowa State, added another 21 COVID-19 cases in 24 hours Monday for a total of 2,363. Its positive rate is 31.3 percent.
Johnson County, home to Iowa City and UI, on Monday added another 123 new COVID-19 cases in 24 hours — leading the state in new cases and continuing a six-day streak of triple-digit increases that have over that span totaled 1,193.
Johnson County now has a total of 3,843 cases and a nearly 40 percent positive rate, earning both it and Story County the label among the worst spots in the United States for new coronavirus cases per capita.
Black Hawk County, home to Cedar Falls and the University of Northern Iowa, added another 26 new cases in 24 hours Monday, bringing its total cases to 3,788 and its positive rate to nearly 38 percent. UNI’s most recent report of COVID-19 positives on campus totaled 70 through Friday.
Iowa State’s report of 503 new COVID-19 cases Monday came just hours after its athletics department announced expectations for 25,000-some fans in Jack Trice Stadium for its first home football game Sept. 12 against the University of Louisiana.
In light of the surge in cases across the Ames campus, Iowa State administrators said the campus is opening a new testing center next week in Johnny’s at Hilton Coliseum to increase testing capacity.
“The university is more than doubling the number of contact tracers and case managers who notify and support ISU students, faculty and staff who test positive or were potentially exposed to a positive COVID-19 case,” according to an ISU news release. “The expanded capacity will support the university’s goal of identifying and isolating positive cases and quarantining potentially exposed individuals to mitigate risk.”
About the more than doubled positivity rate in just a week, ISU officials said it was “not unexpected” as ISU has deployed a “targeted testing strategy, which focuses on testing individuals who are symptomatic or potentially exposed.”
“While the percentage of positive cases among those tested is relatively high, the actual number of positives is small when considering the entire campus population,” Alex Ramirez, professor of veterinary diagnostic and preventive medicine, said in a news release. “Because the university is taking a targeted approach to testing, it is minimizing the risk to others.”
Iowa State’s “targeted sampling” tests only those likely to be positive — due to symptoms or close contacts — and is different from its move-in testing, which tested even those without symptoms or prior contact with a positive case.
Ramirez and other members of Iowa State’s public health team said most of the campus community’s exposures have occurred away from the actual campus.
“Based on the latest information, it does not appear exposure is happening in classrooms and laboratories where mitigation strategies are in place,” according to the Iowa State experts.
They also reported research now shows the coronavirus is not as contagious as other infectious diseases like measles and — on average — a COVID-19-infected person who doesn’t follow mitigation measures will spread it to two or three people.
“Masks drive down infection rates,” according to Jim Roth, an ISU professor and member of the public health team. “If we are all wearing masks and physical distancing as much as possible, both on and off campus, it will make a big difference.”
He also said those with COVID-19 “only shed the live virus for no more than 10 days.”
After photos circulated in mid-August of ISU students partying in homes and at bars, ISU President Wendy Wintersteen rolled out a new social gathering policy requiring face coverings and distancing at all on- or off-campus gatherings. Students in violation could face suspension.
In a letter to campus Monday, Wintersteen wrote, “Unfortunately, we are now seeing the impacts of the large parties and gatherings that occurred the weekend before classes started.”
“For that reason, we enacted the new student social gathering policy.”
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In response to photos of students mingling maskless and shoulder-to-shoulder in Ames, Iowa City, and Cedar Falls, Gov. Kim Reynolds last week closed bars in those communities and three other counties through Sept. 20 and halted alcohol sales at restaurants in those regions after 10 p.m.
“We also appreciate the governor’s decision to close bars in Ames and Story County,” Wintersteen wrote. “In addition, we are increasing our on-campus testing capacity and enhancing the contact tracing process to quickly identify and isolate cases.”
Although some faculty, staff, and students have called for the universities to return to virtual-only learning – which it shifted to in mid-March when the virus first arrived in Iowa – administrators of the three public universities so far have declined.
UI officials have said they’re considering a number of factors in deciding whether to make a change in the middle of the fall semester, noting 76 percent of all undergraduate credit hours currently are online and they have ample residence hall and classroom space.
In her message Monday, Wintersteen said her team is focused on “public health and science-based decision making.”
“As we progress through the fall semester, our health and safety decisions remain rooted in the best public health and science-based guidance available, and we will continue to evaluate and refine our strategies and change course if necessary.”
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