University of Maryland, College Park officials are working to curb the spread of COVID-19 on campus following the detection of coronavirus outbreaks in recent weeks, but some students and staff say they’re growing concerned for their safety.
As of Friday, there had been an average of about 37 new infections per day over the last week affiliated with the university, up from an average of about 29 cases reported daily last week. Housing designated for student isolation and quarantine was 82% full, according to the university’s coronavirus data dashboard.
That’s also up from last week when isolation housing was about 54% full, prompting university officials to suspend in-person classes for a week and institute a “sequester-in-place” order for all students who live in university housing. Campus gyms were closed and university events were canceled.
Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Perillo said Friday that officials are closely monitoring the exact locations where cases are appearing on campus. She noted the school’s overall positivity rate was “very good,” at about 1.7% Friday. The University of Maryland calculates its positivity rate as the total number of positive cases divided by the total number of tests administered by the university.
Cases affiliated with the university are reported two ways, either by on-campus testing or by students and employees reporting the results of tests they got elsewhere. Meanwhile, the weekly testing positivity rate in surrounding Prince George’s County increased slightly in the week leading up to the university’s sequester order.
“The positive cases are by and large mostly coming from groups who are spending time in their pods with six or seven of their friends, feeling pretty comfortable, feeling like they know where everybody’s been,” Perillo said. “They might have a meal together, distanced, but take their masks off. And that’s why we’re seeing the spread.”
Perillo said the university has “ample” space to convert into isolation or quarantine space if cases and exposures continue to rise. And a significant number of students are expected to complete their isolation periods over the weekend, freeing up more space for those who are sick or may have been exposed, she said.
The administrator estimates there are about 4,300 students living on campus and more than 18,000 living in the greater College Park region. Students residing in university housing as well as fraternity and sorority houses are living in single rooms without roommates, but might share bathrooms, hallways, stairwells or other common areas with fellow residents.
Perillo also attributed the spike to more frequent testing on campus and the presence in Maryland of more contagious variants of the virus that causes COVID-19.
“Some of the behaviors that students might have engaged in in the fall semester, when they didn’t contract COVID-19, might not stand true now because of the more contagious variant that might be present,” she said.
Still, some undergraduates say they are frustrated that the health safety mandates on campus didn’t prevent them from getting sick.
Aaron Arnstein lives alone in his Denton Hall dorm room. The self-described “germaphobe” said he follows university rules, wears two face masks and avoids contact with other people as much as possible.
Last week, the 18-year-old New Jersey native discovered that two students living on either side of his dorm room had contracted the virus. A few days later, Arnstein began feeling symptoms himself and tested positive.
Arnstein speculates he contracted COVID-19 while using a communal bathroom in his dorm. And he was concerned about infecting others when university officials took about 24 hours to relocate him into isolation housing after receiving his test results.
“I was trying to stay in my room as much as possible, but I still had to leave my room to go to the bathroom,” Arnstein said of the wait.
Noah Zipin just wants to be allowed to see a friend. But the 20-year-old sophomore, mechanical engineering student lives in a residence hall on campus and keeps hearing about people testing positive for COVID-19.
His dorm, Oakland Hall, has seen people from four floors sent to quarantine or isolate in campus housing, according to emails from the University Division of Student Affairs, Department of Residential Facilities, obtained by The Sun.
While Zipin said he’s been following the guidelines, he’s seen images of raucous parties and smaller gatherings of people without masks.
After working 30 years in higher education, Perillo said she knows there are probably unsanctioned student gatherings she doesn’t hear about. However, administrators do not believe the rise in cases is linked to a single event.
About 600 students have been referred to the university’s Office of Student Conduct for potential COVID-19 violations on campus since the beginning of the fall semester. Students found to have violated the health safety rules on campus could face disciplinary action ranging from reprimand to suspension and expulsion.
Some students have lost housing privileges or received interim suspensions this year for such violations, a university spokeswoman said. She did not say how many students were disciplined.
“Since the start of the pandemic, we have been very clear with our campus community that we all maintain a collective responsibility in keeping our community healthy and safe,” university officials said in a statement. “We have reminded our community that failure to comply with university expectations and public health mandates puts the health of others at risk and cannot be tolerated.”
Zipin said the stricter campus guidelines lack teeth and punish those who’ve been compliant while offering limited enforcement for those who’ve already flouted public health precautions.
“These stricter guidelines, which are meant to target the people that are mask-less in the lounges playing cards, are really affecting me, because I can’t have interaction with another person, while the people who weren’t following the guidelines aren’t following them anyways because there’s no enforcement on campus,” he said.
Zipin wondered whether the isolation was having a harmful effect.
“The ritual is: log on to Zoom, walk to the dining hall, walk back and do Zoom and go to bed,” he said.
The university’s spring break is scheduled to begin March 14. Students are required to take a COVID-19 test March 11. Instruction will move online for the two weeks following the break.
Meanwhile, the outbreak has angered the union representing roughly 3,300 university employees. It maintains the university has neglected to take steps to keep workers safe.
Todd Holden, president of the AFSCME Local 1072, said approximately a third of his members are still reporting for work in one capacity or another. They are the staff of residential facilities, dining services, athletics, transportation services, information technology, health centers and, more recently, those charged with supporting the students forced into quarantine.
“It is some of our lowest paid workers, yet some of our most dedicated workers, who are supporting these students while they wait this out,” he said.
Some 2,328 people affiliated with the university have contracted the virus since campus health officials began reporting test results — both tests it conducts and results reported to them — Aug. 19, according to an analysis of university data by its independent student newspaper, The Diamondback.
That’s the resource American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees officials rely on and even then, they suspect there have been far more cases.
Another union official, Stuart Katzenberg, said approximately 300 employees have been infected since late August, though the university doesn’t release timely information about COVID-19 cases to the union.
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While the university said it offered to bargain about health and safety protocols, Katzenberg said the implication was that they’d have to negotiate their entire contract, which doesn’t expire until June.
“They have consistently refused to bargain time sensitive narrow health and safety issues with AFSCME during the pandemic,” Katzenberg said. “It is still not mandatory for management to outfit our members with proper PPE including N95 and KN95 masks despite the clear and present dangers. The outbreaks occurring are the results of management’s poor decisions and failure to enact strong health and safety measures, and enforcement mechanisms.”
Nathan Sparks, 27, is among the workers who feel unsafe.
The union steward drives buses for the university and said he’s concerned about the outbreak. People get on the bus not wearing masks appropriately, he said, and the buses aren’t sanitized properly between drivers or shifts.
As Sparks was driving around campus this week, the sun was shining so it came as no surprise to see students outside in groups, despite the latest health order only allowing students to leave their residence halls to get food or for 30 minutes of fresh air in the area immediately surrounding their dorms or fraternity and sorority houses.
He’s frustrated by students who flout precautions to keep their peers, his colleagues and their families, and everyone else safe. But Sparks said it’s up to the university to make sure the mandate doesn’t fall on deaf ears.
“You can tell people they can’t do anything anytime anywhere,” he said, “but if you don’t enforce it, it’s like: with what army?”