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Alabama updates COVID-19 testing results for college students

Two days into classes at University of Alabama System campuses in Tuscaloosa and Huntsville, the reentry testing numbers are coming into focus as other schools across the nation struggle with outbreaks.

© Ben Flanagan | bflanagan@al.com/al.com/TNS
The University of Alabama began its fall 2020 semester, as students hit campus for the first day of classes with new COVID-19 policies in place on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.

To date, more than 75,000 students attending colleges in Alabama have been tested through the GuideSafe program. Those tests have yielded a 0.75 percent rate of positivity or approximately 563 students, GuideSafe officials announced Thursday afternoon. AL.com reported Aug. 12 that the first 30,000 tests included 0.83 percent positive results.

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Students must use designated entrances and exits in and out of campus buildings now. The University of Alabama began its fall 2020 semester, as students hit campus for the first day of classes with new COVID-19 policies in place on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.

Reentry testing ends Aug. 26 with the UAB campus officially beginning classes Monday.

Those numbers include only the tests done at the 14 locations instate or the mail-in kits sent to those out of state. It doesn’t include students who went to their personal doctor or other testing locations outside the GuideSafe umbrella.

© Ben Flanagan | bflanagan@al.com/al.com/TNS
The University of Alabama began its fall 2020 semester, as students hit campus for the first day of classes with new COVID-19 policies in place on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.

And these numbers come in the backdrop of well-publicized outbreaks at other campuses like North Carolina and Notre Dame. Both suspended in-person learning after a week of classes after positive tests mounted.

North Carolina didn’t require the reentry tests like the UA System campuses.

Notre Dame, conversely, tested nearly 12,000 students before returning. Only 0.28 percent (33 students) were positive, Notre Dame announced the day classes began Aug. 10. The school on Wednesday moved all undergraduate classes online for two weeks after a spike in positive tests.

RELATED: As students return to campus, some universities publish coronavirus numbers

The South Bend Tribune reported the positive cases totaled 304 on Thursday with 15.2 percent of the 494 tests given Wednesday coming back negative.

So, what would it take for UA campuses to make that call to move away from in-person learning?

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The University of Alabama began its fall 2020 semester, as students hit campus for the first day of classes with new COVID-19 policies in place on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.

“It really is dependent on each institution to find what it’s comfortable managing,” UAB infectious disease expert Dr. Michael Saag said Thursday. “In the case of North Carolina is I think they saw a surge in cases where they could not quarantine — they lost their capacity to quarantine.”

© Ben Flanagan | bflanagan@al.com/al.com/TNS
There is COVID-19-related signage all over campus encouraging social distancing, mask-wearing and other safety measures. The University of Alabama began its fall 2020 semester, as students hit campus for the first day of classes with new COVID-19 policies in place on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.

The Chapel Hill campus was down to four quarantine rooms (of the original 73) on Monday, The Daily Tar Heel reported. The school announced the move to online learning that day.

As of Wednesday night, a UA spokesperson told AL.com it had a 90 percent vacancy rate in its 450 apartment-style dorm rooms it set aside for isolating students living in dorms and Greek houses.

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A ‘Welcome Back” sign in front of Doster Hall. The University of Alabama began its fall 2020 semester, as students hit campus for the first day of classes with new COVID-19 policies in place on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.

The Faculty Senate at the University of Alabama passed a resolution Wednesday seeking more transparency and a request for thresholds leadership would use to make decisions like North Carolina or Notre Dame.

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Stuart Bell, the president of UA, wrote a two-page letter in response to the resolution. In it, he stated no one metric alone would likely change operation of the campus. Instead, they would look to data points including infection rates, testing capabilities/results, the capacity of the Student Health Center, University Medical Center and local hospitals as well as capacity of isolation/quarantine spaces.

“My sense is there will be two parts to the equation,” Dr. Haag said. “One is the ability to keep people who need quarantine quarantined. If you exceed that capacity, you’ll have to come up with alternate ways of managing including going to virtual classes. The other thing is how much they’re comfortable with watching the trend or the increase in cases.

© Ben Flanagan | bflanagan@al.com/al.com/TNS
The University of Alabama began its fall 2020 semester, as students hit campus for the first day of classes with new COVID-19 policies in place on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.

“I think that was the Notre Dame experience where they had capacity but also had tested most of their students before they came back on campus. And within a very short period of time, less than two weeks, they had a surge in cases, and they said ‘OK, we want to put a firewall up and try and let this cool off.’”

© Ben Flanagan | bflanagan@al.com/al.com/TNS
The University of Alabama began its fall 2020 semester, as students hit campus for the first day of classes with new COVID-19 policies in place on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.

After reentry testing ends, UA will begin sentinel testing of smaller pockets on campus. That program begins Aug. 28 and if there’s an outbreak before that, “the testing will be ramped up accordingly,” Saag said.

The doctor said he likens this situation to a wildfire.

“You have a clean area, but it might be dry and serve as tinder for a wildfire that’s coming,” Saag said. “We’re seeing that in northern California right now. All it takes is one ember to jump the highway and go to this other area for this new wildfire to begin. What we’re trying to do is minimize the number of embers.”

Michael Casagrande is a reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande or on Facebook.

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©2020 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham

Visit Alabama Media Group, Birmingham at www.al.com

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© Ben Flanagan | bflanagan@al.com/al.com/TNS
The University of Alabama began its fall 2020 semester, as students hit campus for the first day of classes with new COVID-19 policies in place on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.

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