Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa, is experiencing an uncontrolled and largely undetected COVID-19 outbreak.
In a couple short days between the time this editorial is finalized and the time it’s published, the numbers could grow further out of control. As of Friday morning, both Iowa City and Ames ranked among the top five metro areas in the nation for COVID-19 transmission in the last two weeks, according to the New York Times.
While nearly 800 new positive cases over seven days in Johnson County is frightening, it is almost certainly a significant understatement. This month, as tens of thousands of UI students poured into town to start the fall semester, there was no plan in place to test a significant portion of them, and therefore no way to know how many brought the virus to Iowa City with them, from their homes in nearly every Iowa county and many U.S. states.
Rules and recommendations from the university, the city and the state proved inadequate at managing the throngs of students determined to partake in Iowa City’s famous party scene. Downtown bars were packed with young adults last weekend, according to reporting by The Gazette’s Vanessa Miller. Enforcement of Iowa City’s mask mandate was lax, and many bar-goers wore masks improperly or not at all. Social distancing was mostly not observed.
University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld wrote in a statement that he was “exceedingly disappointed in some of the downtown Iowa City businesses and your choices to disregard the proclamation from the governor.”
After similar reports of tightly packed parties in Ames and Cedar Falls, all three public universities issued statements threatening to suspend students who violate health orders.
There’s plenty of blame being laid on students and businesses. UI has even set up an official channel for community members to report violations to the authorities. But what about the institutional actors who made it all possible?
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Ever since March, when Iowa’s public universities moved the remainder of their spring semester to online-only as a coronavirus precaution, people have been talking about the challenges we would encounter with returning to campus this fall.
A few of the basic steps suggested were to give both students and instructors the option of online-only classes, provide widespread testing and establish a plan to safely quarantine infected students. None of that happened at Iowa’s flagship public university. Even as other U.S. college’s early openings the last few weeks gave grim signs of what was to come, there was no apparent shift in strategy.
UI’s coronavirus precautions are woefully inadequate to keep the community safe. Now, students and staff must prepare for the apparent inevitability that in-person classes will be prematurely called off.
It’s not just that UI has no ability to track or control the coronavirus, but the school can’t even respond appropriately to positive cases.
In a viral social media post, one UI student detailed her COVID-19 experience. She said she spent more than two hours on the phone to arrange a test, before walking from her east-side residence hall to the west-side hospital. She tested positive, and was instructed to move her things to an isolation room in another building. The isolation room was “dirty, gross, and disgusting,” the student reported.
Citing privacy regulations, UI does not require students to disclose positive tests, and staff are prohibited from telling other students they may have been exposed to COVID-19.
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It may not be safe to keep the entire student body in Iowa City until Thanksgiving break, when the university plans to transition to online schooling.
Disrupting the semester early would create serious hardships for students, who won’t be wrong to feel they have been swindled. They signed up for classes and signed rental agreements under assurances that the university was taking steps to keep them on campus, and safe from an unmitigated coronavirus outbreak. If they had known their tuition payments ultimately might be for online classes, they might have taken the semester off.
Robust testing is possible, if there’s a will. Just a couple hundred miles away, at the University of Illinois, students are required to be tested twice per week, with a rapid saliva test developed internally. Aggressive testing seems like a much better use of the university’s resources than chiding bar owners and their young customers.
If there’s any bright side, perhaps it’s a learning experience. With the likelihood that the coronavirus pandemic will persist through the beginning of the spring semester next January, this fall is not UI’s last chance to get it right.
Whatever strengths or weaknesses exist in the UI community’s COVID-19 precautions, they were made almost irrelevant by the decision not to offer widespread testing as soon as students arrived on campus.
The virus will spread, even with stronger rules and more compliance. UI needs a plan to test every student, and respond quickly when cases arise.
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