University of Illinois sees spike in faculty, staff, and grad student COVID-19 cases as county battles ‘uncontrolled spread’

You are currently viewing University of Illinois sees spike in faculty, staff, and grad student COVID-19 cases as county battles ‘uncontrolled spread’Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess
COVID-19 testing takes place on the University of Illinois Quad in Urbana, IL on Wednesday, September 16, 2020.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has reported 170 new cases among faculty and staff over the past four weeks, nearly a threefold increase since the university began tracking cases in June.

At least 261 faculty and staff have been infected since June, according to the university.

The university also reported a sharp rise in the infection among graduate students, with 78 cases over the last four weeks. In addition, 642 undergraduates were infected.

The numbers were released in response to a request from after Chancellor Robert Jones sent a mass email to the campus in which he said the seven-day positivity rate for graduate students nearly doubled and the rate for faculty and staff had tripled

University spokeswoman Robin Kaler said that university researcher and professor Nigel Goldenfeld provided the campus numbers. Goldenfeld said in an email to Kaler that the university had only begun tracking graduate student and undergraduate numbers since October 14.

Meanwhile, the university online dashboard for COVID-19 reported a total number of 3,768 campus cases as of Nov. 12. 

The university recorded 278 new cases from Nov. 8 to Nov. 13, including 76 cases on Monday, marking the fourth day in which the university has reported case totals of more than 70 — including 74 cases on Oct. 26, 82 on Nov. 2, and 80 on Nov. 4 — in a 14-day stretch.

Goldenfeld has led a team of researchers who are tracking cases and they projected in the summer that the university would have 700 cases at most by Thanksgiving.  Goldenfeld and university officials have attributed the unexpectedly large number of cases to student parties and gatherings and to some students avoiding contact tracing and quarantining.

But Jones attributed the recent sudden surge in campus cases to “the dramatic increase in the cases in east central Illinois during this time period,” while noting that the increase “is not due to classroom or on-the-job transmission.” Champaign-Urbana Public Health District Administrator Julie Pryde also has said the surge in university infections is because of community to campus transmissions.

Jones and Pryde said they based their conclusions on contact tracing done by the county public health department, which has hired more than 180 contact tracers and is still hiring. 

In his mass email, Jones also instructed faculty, graduate students and staff to return to twice weekly testing. Graduate students were previously told to test on a weekly basis on September 7, after initially being on a twice-a-week requirement. At that time undergraduates made up the bulk of the caseload on campus. 

According to the campus profile data, the majority of classes are being taught online by the roughly 7,500 faculty members. There are about 10,000 staff members and 17,000 graduate students.

Champaign County, Region 6 battle “uncontrolled spread”

The county reported 8,117 total cases on Sunday, 818 active cases (infected people in isolation) and 1,449 people who had been in close contact with infected cases and are in quarantine. 

The county reported 39 deaths although the state public health department reported 40. The state also reported more total cases on Sunday, 8,959 — 842 more than the county.  The county lags in reported cases because it confirms the cases through contact tracers before reporting.

Cases and deaths have also been rising in Champaign County and the other 20 counties that make up what the state public health officials designate as Region 6, which covers East central Illinois. 

The county is also on a state alert because of the rate of infection, 471 cases per 100,000, which nine times the target rate of 50 cases per 100,000.

After months of maintaining a lower rate of COVID-19 transmission than most of the state, steadily rising infection rates and a record number of hospitalizations at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana prompted health officials to raise warnings last week for Champaign County and Region 6.

Carle Hospital, which treats most of the area’s serious cases, reported last week that it had a record number of 70 COVID-19 patients, although the number of patients from Champaign County has varied from 5 to 10 on Saturday.

The state recently enacted Tier 1 mitigation measures, which prohibits indoor service at restaurants and bars and dictates they close from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. Nonetheless, the seven-day positivity rate in Champaign County rose to a record 9.3%, and Region 6 hit a record 13.5% on Sunday.

On Thursday, Pryde warned in an online press conference of “uncontrollable spread” in the county and region as she recommended that all area schools switch to remote learning through Jan. 5.

“We have got to get this level of transmission down and get it down soon,” Pryde said. “Because we do not want to see what’s happening in other places in our state and other places in the country. I wish I had better news, but this is where we are right now.”

Region 6 has seen its positivity rate more than double since the beginning of September, rising from just under 6%, while Champaign County’s positivity rate rose at an even sharper rate, gradually increasing from 2% over the same period. Part of the rise is from the state separating out thousands of daily results from university saliva testing, which state officials said skewed the region and county numbers.

Widespread community transmission

Pryde reiterated that she does not believe that the University of Illinois is driving COVID-19 spread in the area, but rather that it is a product of “widespread community transmission.”

“This is not cases coming from the U of I,” Pryde said. “These are cases transmitting within our community. We have a record number of hospitalizations, and in the past week alone, we’ve reported eight deaths.

Pryde’s push to close schools saw a quick decision from Unit 4 Schools in Champaign, which will begin online-only instruction on Monday, it is expected to push many other area schools to a remote-only model. 

Pryde’s recommendation didn’t apply to the university, though, which she said is in a different situation with its testing system. The Illinois Department of Public Health began removing the University of Illinois’ SHIELD saliva testing results from Champaign County and Region 6 metrics on Oct. 14, a move that immediately raised both areas’ positivity rates. 

At a certain point of infection, schools are essentially forced to go to remote models of learning, Pryde said.

“With this much uncontrollable spread, you’ll notice on the guidance that came down from you ISBE and IDPH, that once we get to a certain level of positivity that this is the recommended step to take,” Pryde said. “Basically, you can’t have everything. So if people are going to continue to gather and have weddings, and have receptions and act like we’re not in a pandemic, schools are going to suffer and other places are going to suffer.”

“There’s no sign of this slowing down,” Pryde continued. “And in addition to this, we’re starting to see flu in our ER’s and our convenient cares.” 

As flu season gets underway, hospitals all over the country are expecting to see an increase in strain on available ICU beds and ventilators.

As of Saturday night, Region 6 still had 276 ventilators available out of 322. However, 120 of 178 ICU beds were in use.

Most of the area’s COVID-19 spread is being caused by gatherings, Pryde said, such as weddings, birthday parties, funerals, meetings and informal gatherings, like friends getting together in an apartment. Area businesses, some of which have not followed the new Tier 1 mitigations that are in effect, have played a role as well.

“We’re also seeing spread coming from bars and restaurants that are not following Tier 1 outdoor seating only guidance,” Pryde said. “It is a little difficult to tease that out, in the sense that its bars and restaurants are reported together on that.”

Champaign Mayor Deborah Feinen echoed Pryde’s words of warning, urging the community to buckle in for what is likely to be the most intense period of COVID-19 infection so far.

“The next two months could really be the most devastating period to date for COVID,” Feinen said. “I guess the good news is it looks like vaccines are not too far away, but they’re not going to stop this surge. It is time right now to work against COVID.”

Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin added that the Champaign-Urbana community, along with the rest of Region 6, has not yet dealt with the pandemic in such an intense phase.

“With sustained community spread, the virus is everywhere,” Marlin said. “And (there is) a massive impact that the community really hasn’t felt, and won’t feel until now.”

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