Many returning university students may come from high-risk states for COVID-19

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A tent and signs indicate a Covid-19 testing site at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign's Alice Campbell Alumni Center on Friday, July 31, 2020. The University is conducting free saliva tests for faculty, staff and students with results typically known within 48 hours.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began in January, Champaign County – home to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and about 50,000 faculty, students and staff – has experienced a low number of positive cases when compared to many other areas of the state and the U.S.

But over the next three weeks thousands of students from areas that have suffered high rates of cases may return to campus,

Champaign County, which has a population of about 207,000, has an overall positivity rate of about 2 percent, although some parts of the county have recently had rates ranging from 3 to 6 percent. Positivity is the percentage of people tested positive of the total of people tested.  The total number of Covid-19 cases in the county was 1,486 with 19 deaths, according to state health figures on July 31.

A comparison of university data on where out-of-state students are from as of the last school year and data on the positivity rates in those states shows that as many as 5,000 students may be arriving from 32 states that have positivity rates higher than 5 percent, according to a review of the data by

Public health officials have said that a rate higher than 5 percent calls for additional caution.

“On May 12, 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) advised governments that before reopening, rates of positivity in testing (i.e, out of all tests conducted, how many came back positive for COVID-19) should remain at 5% or lower for at least 14 days,” according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

The positivity rates vary from day to day or week to week so the number of states over the 5 percent rate can easily change.

While the university has planned an extensive testing program for the campus population, there is no guarantee that the returning students – and faculty – will be tested before going to restaurants, bars, stores, or events. There does not appear any notification that students are mandated to take the testing or penalized if they do not.

Julie Pryde, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District administrator, said her department would not know when students arrived from states with high rates.

“We would never know,” Pryde said, “Luckily (the university) is testing them as soon as they arrive.” 

Pryde said she had assumed the university would require students be tested, but did not know what the procedures actually will be.

The university is expected to make an “official announcement” early next week on testing requirements, said Awais Vaid, Director of Planning and Research at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District. 

Although declining to release further details, Vaid did say in an email “that any decision that will be announced by the (university) has been made in close consultation with (Champaign-Urbana Public Health District) over the last four months.” 

The university did not respond to a request for information on the number of cases reported on campus or how many students have already been tested.

There also have not been any plans announced to have students from the U.S. high risk areas quarantined when they arrive in Champaign County.

The city of Chicago, however, is requiring those who travel to the city from a state where COVID-19 cases are spiking to quarantine for 14 days. This also includes Chicago residents traveling to one of the 22 states that Chicago has deemed high risk. 

A comparison by CU-CitizenAccess of that list and student addresses at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign show at least 4,000 students are from those states. (Those states are part of the list of 32 with higher than 5 percent positivity rate.)

In addition, if traveling to O’Hare airport from one of the listed states, quarantine would only be required by Chicago if the person planned to stay in Chicago for more than 24 hours. For University of Illinois students coming from listed states to O’Hare, the city will not require quarantine if they proceed to campus right away.

Pryde said that, unlike arriving international students, a quarantine locally for arriving domestic students would be difficult to do unless O’Hare officials notify state or local health departments of those arrivals from high-risk areas. 

“But that is not happening at this time,” she said in an email. “Additionally others drive.”

Pryde said that there have been several infected persons related to travel and health officials are encouraging those who have traveled to test when they first get back and then again four days later. 

“The increase in cases is that (the university) is doing tons of testing, so they are catching students early so they can be isolated (and) any contacts quarantined,” she said.

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  1. Allen

    I REALLY want to encourage everyone to participate in health screening, containment of respiratory droplets with face coverings, good hand hygeine, and maintaining a minimum of 6′ distance from others. I’m living proof that these things can help to a significant degree.