CORONAVIRUS

UI expert worries students will spread COVID-19 to other communities over Labor Day weekend

'The greatest risk is actually of them carrying COVID to wherever they go'

A sign in support of University of Iowa health care workers is seen in front of the Old Capitol Museum in Iowa City on F
A sign in support of University of Iowa health care workers is seen in front of the Old Capitol Museum in Iowa City on Friday, April 3, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — With the long Labor Day holiday upcoming and Johnson County continuing to add new COVID-19 cases in the triple digits each day, a University of Iowa Health Care epidemiologist said Thursday he’s worried about students spreading the infection to other communities.

“I am not very concerned about the possibility of (students) going places and bringing COVID (back) because the incidence of COVID in Iowa City and Johnson County, especially among that age group, is so high — it’s one of the highest in the country,” Jorge Salinas, infectious disease specialist and head of epidemiology at UI Hospitals and Clinics, told reporters Thursday.

“The greatest risk is actually of them carrying COVID to wherever they go.”

Through Wednesday, 1,142 students and 16 employees at the UI had self-reported a positive COVID-19 test this semester, which began only last week. That included 220 since just Monday — exemplifying the rampant spread among the county’s younger population, which swelled this month when the UI brought tens of thousands of students and faculty back to campus.

Salinas said he’s hopeful UIHC — which has been testing many UI students — experienced a peak in infected young people about a week ago.

“Since then the number of cases has decreased to some degree, but we are still hovering over nearly 100 positive cases a day, which is still a very large number,” he said. “So the numbers have decreased some. Some could see that as some good news. They have stopped increasing … But they are still at a relatively high number. One hundred is still a meaningful number.”

Johnson County on Thursday reported another 108 new COVID-19 cases in a 24-hour period — continuing its now nine-day streak of triple-digit increases. Its seven-day average sits at 159 a day after its peak of 338 new cases one Aug. 26 alone, just two days after the start of the semester.

While UI administrators opted to keep this fall’s academic calendar unchanged — starting Aug. 24 and finishing Dec. 18, although moving everyone online after Thanksgiving — Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa started a week sooner on Aug. 17 in hopes of finishing the fall term entirely the day before Thanksgiving.

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In making that change, ISU and UNI nixed the Labor Day holiday and said students will have class. But UI students still have the day off, and Salinas warned them to remember they’re coming from a COVID-19 hotbed and to be cautious about where they go and who they see.

“They should be extra careful about the way they socialize in the next few days,” he said. “They have to be extra careful about visiting their family. They should avoid visiting their family if possible, especially if those people that they were planning on visiting may include persons that are older than 50 or may have chronic medical conditions.”

Specifically, Salinas urged avoiding gatherings of 10 or more people; convening outdoors if you must get together; wearing a mask; and staying at least 6 feet away from others.

“If we all practice those recommendations, it’s pretty clear that the incidence of COVID in Johnson County and all of Iowa could decrease in the next few weeks,” he said. “That’s what is so interesting about the epidemiology and the prevention of COVID. We know the tools. We know what works. We just need to work together. If we work together as a society, we exercise solidarity, we can bring the numbers down.”

A recent White House coronavirus task force report recommended Iowa — as a “red zone” state — take a number of mitigation measures including enacting a statewide mask mandate and ramping up testing in university communities.

When asked about state and local officials rebuffing some of those recommendations, Salinas said he’s hopeful federal, state and local leaders will take seriously public health and scientific guidance.

“I’m hopeful that they will continue monitoring the trends of COVID, and that they will continue evaluating and hopefully implementing some of the recommendations that are coming from experts,” he said.

While Iowa City has enacted a mask mandate, there is no statewide rule. And unlike Iowa State University, the UI did not require students to get tested before moving into residence halls.

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Salinas said typical student activities and experiences can serve as super-spreaders for COVID-19 — like Greek events, bar hopping and house parties — and he said shutting those down for the time being can only help. Gov. Kim Reynolds has ordered bars in six counties — including those in Iowa City — to close until at least Sept. 20.

But with some members of the UI community continuing to demand administrators move all courses online, Salinas said the time might have passed for any benefit of doing so.

“If the students were not here, yes it could decrease the incidence here in Johnson County,” he said. “However, now we know that many of them carry the virus and what we would be doing is transferring the virus to other locations. So the problem has changed, has evolved, has become a bit more complex. Asking students to leave town would not necessarily decrease our overall incidence as a state.”

But going online only for colleges that have not yet started back, which includes Mount Mercy University and Cornell College, could prove helpful in curbing the spread, Salinas said.

And Iowa’s campuses will have to consider lessons from this fall in deciding how to proceed in the spring, he said.

“It’s very clear that many colleges are learning from the experiences that they are going through,” Salinas said. “And it’s very clear that these experiences will influence the way things are done in the future.”

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

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