Since the students returned to campus in late August, the number of positive COVID-19 cases associated with University of Michigan students has increased. The number of cases started to increase on August 29, the first day of school.
The number of COVID-19 cases fell from 73 the week of August 22 to 195 the week of August 29. Preliminary data for the two weeks since then shows the numbers remained high at 156 the week of September 5, dropping to 82 for the week of September 12.
Since the start of the course, the positivity rates have remained below 2%.
In an email to the university community on Friday, President Mark Schlissel wrote that, according to the scorecard, “the number of cases and our use of quarantine housing has flattened.”
In an email to the Michigan Daily last Thursday, Dr. Robert Ernst, associate vice president of student life for health and wellness and director of COVID-19 Campus Health Response, wrote that he believed the University mitigation strategies such as masking and vaccination reduced the risk of transmission on campus, even with the most contagious delta variant.
“Given the campus restocking and many associated large social gatherings where masking is not universal, the discovery of covid transmission among students at the start of the fall semester is not surprising,” wrote Ernst. âPeer institutions like ours have seen similar early increases, and campuses like ours that started earlier have seen those early increases followed by a gradual decline. “
In recent weeks, doctors across the state have reported a gradual increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in hospitals. According to Jakob McSparron, associate director of Michigan Medicine’s intensive care medicine unit, the number of cases per week over the past month has increased from 25 to 35 to 45 as the delta variant has spread.
âThe climb is a bit slower compared to the previous pushes we were used to seeing,â McSparron said. “This time it’s more of a steady increase in our numbers.”
Hallie Prescott, a pulmonologist at Michigan Medicine, said in an email that she believes these upward trends should be of concern to students.
âIt is certainly worth noting that COVID is circulating in our community, and therefore (it is) important to take additional precautions such as wearing a mask in indoor public spaces,â Prescott said. “Even though the personal risk of hospitalization / death from COVID is low, these additional measures are important to keep the number of cases low and protect our community as a whole.”
According to McSparron, the majority of patients in Michigan Medicine’s intensive care unit are not vaccinated. The few who are vaccinated have underlying conditions that put them at risk, he said.
McSparron said he believes things might start to look more normal if vaccination rates increase.
âUnfortunately, I think we’re seeing more young patients this time around in terms of the unvaccinated,â McSparron said. “It’s very difficult to see a 20 year old on a respirator knowing that a lot of it was preventable.”
LSA sophomore Lana King said she started noticing the rise when she received several “COVID-class” notifications, which have since been discontinued.
âPersonally, I’m not too scared because we all wear masks and especially in the classroom you’re not that close to people,â King said.
When asked if recent trends in COVID-19 cases on campus should be of concern to students, Ernst said it was too early to predict new developments this fall.
âThere has been no evidence of transmission in residences and luckily, as one would expect in a highly vaccinated population, most of those affected only show mild symptoms,â Ernst said.
Ernst said the university is in a very different position from last year of university, when Washtenaw County had to use hold-in-place orders and recommendations to curb the spread of the virus.
âThis year, even with many more students on campus, much more occupancy in dorms, and significantly more social interaction at large gatherings, most of the cases we have seen have been isolated and unassociated. to further spread, âErnst said.
Beyond campus, cases in Washtenaw County are also increasing. The increase in the number of cases in the county is straining hospitals, leaving medical professionals to work long hours and buildings understaffed, McSparron said.
âIt’s definitely a very stressful time in the hospital,â McSparron said. âThe sheer volume and complexity of our patients right now is something we’ve never seen before. I think the staff and people at the bedside are really tired.
King said students who are employed in Washtenaw County should take greater precautions to ensure the safety of residents as they have more contact with the outside community.
âI really think it’s the responsible thing to do to be careful,â King said. “Especially when there is such a large population living just outside of campus.”
Ernst said that despite the increase in cases, the University’s COVID-19 policies have been generally successful, resulting in a highly vaccinated population and limited spread of the virus from students to the wider community.
“Most of the cases (students) are associated with mild illness, and like previous semesters, there was no evidence that infections among students have spread to the wider community of Washtenaw County,” Ernst wrote.
Although most students are vaccinated, Prescott said many doctors still find it difficult to speculate on the future of COVID-19. Prescott said she anticipated the need for periodic vaccinations for COVID-19, similar to flu shots.
âIt’s increasingly clear that there will be no ‘post-COVID’ world,â Prescott said. âOn the contrary, we will have to continue to learn how to best live with COVID. Hopefully, as vaccination rates continue to rise, epidemics will be less frequent and less severe. However, COVID is unlikely to be eradicated and there will continue to be new variants over time, some of which may be less well covered by existing vaccines. “
Ernst said it is possible for the virus to become endemic or regularly present in the general population.
“The virus is expected to continue to evolve and because of this (and significant pockets of vaccine reluctance) it already looks like the virus may become endemic,” Ernst wrote.
One of the results of “learning to live with COVID” may include mask requirements at large outdoor gatherings, including football games and university-hosted events, Prescott said. The University does not currently require masks in areas outside Michigan Stadium, which is causing concern to some Ann Arbor residents.
âIf demanding masks is the decision they make, then that’s exactly what will happen,â said King, the second LSA student. “I wouldn’t really be in a position to have an opinion in this case.”
Journalist for the daily Ashna Mehra can be contacted at [email protected]