Early Wednesday evening, several hours after the University of Alabama at Birmingham issued a statement accusing the New York Times of misinterpreting university COVID-19 infection data in a way that greatly overstated the virus’s footprint at the school, students defended the university, saying it has enforced strict precautionary measures since they returned to campus earlier this month.
The stories students told of the first days of the fall semester reflect a vastly different reality than the one suggested by its position atop a list published by the Times Wednesday morning that identified UAB as the American higher-education institution with the single highest number of COVID cases to date.
The scene on campus Wednesday evening did not seem to support an assertion that the virus is raging out of control at UAB or students are failing to take it seriously. The percentage of people wearing masks outside was very high – well over 90 percent – and most followed social distancing guidelines, though some walked or ate outside together in small groups or came close to one another while throwing a Frisbee on the quad.
‘We all want to stay’
Darpha Carson has been looking forward to the rituals of his first days of college for years. He was particularly excited to hang out with friends and show his dorm room off to his family.
But when he moved into his dorm room on the UAB campus earlier this month from his home across town, he entered a mid-pandemic collegiate world where none of that is possible.
Only one person was allowed to help him carry his belongings up to his room, and the university has barred students from entering residence halls other than their own and having outside friends over. Like every student, Carson has to complete an online health assessment each morning to get a daily digital “passport” that allows him to enter university buildings and facilities. He, like every other Blazer this year, has to wait in a socially distanced, single-file line to get to-go food (indoor dining is barred) at The Commons on the Green, the campus dining hall. And most of his classes have been moved to an online-only format.
Like many students who spoke with AL.com Wednesday evening, Carson said the university’s COVID-19 precautions have been a minor inconvenience and that he was disappointed to miss out on some stereotypical rites of freshman year passage.
But he, like many of his peers, said he understands the steps are necessary, and that he is thankful that he goes to a college that is taking the virus so seriously.
“I actually do think we’ll make it through the school year because UAB has this really good health program, and also I feel like students are following it because they want to be able to stay on campus and use its resources,” he said.
Delaney Smith, a freshman from Paulding County, Ga., agreed, saying that though she worries that she will have a hard time making friends if the restrictions remain in place, she believes they are essential if students hope to stay on campus for the rest of the school year.
“We can’t go to other residence halls, so unless there’s a party in our building, no one’s going to even know about it or go, and there are [resident assistants] on every floor anyways,” she said. “We all want to stay.”
Carson’s assessment of the situation at UAB was a far cry from the conclusions many drew from the COVID-19 rankings list that was embedded within an article the Times published early Wednesday morning, less than 48 hours after the bell rang on the university’s first class of the 2020 school year.
The 972 cases at UAB reported by the Times trumped the 835 cases at the University of North Carolina, which has already moved all its classes online in response to a largescale campus outbreak. It also dwarfs the tallies at the University of Alabama’s flagship campus in Tuscaloosa and Auburn University in Lee County, which had 568 and 557 cases, respectively, which earned them fourth- and fifth-place slots on the list.
Shortly after the newspaper published the story, UAB released a statement saying that the Times based the school’s ranking on a case total that included people who have had coronavirus in UAB’s hospitals and other medical facilities since March, not just the number of on-campus cases, which was the criteria used to rank most other schools. That resulted in a great exaggeration of the prevalence of coronavirus at the Birmingham university, according to UAB.
“In an effort to be transparent, UAB has provided the number of positive cases among UAB students, faculty and staff year-to-date, including data from our clinical and non-clinical enterprises. These data were posted out of context in a New York Times article about ‘colleges and universities’ in a misleading way,” the statement said.
While the UA System’s online coronavirus dashboard showed early Thursday that there have been 531 “cumulative COVID-19 Positives since August 19, 2020,” it indicated that UAB had only six such “cumulative cases for students, academic faculty, and staff” over that timeframe. UAB said in its Wednesday statement that the university is only aware of 239 current students, staff and employees who have tested positive for the virus at any point this year, the overwhelming majority of whom contracted it before the fall semester began.
By the Times’s own admission, the data used to rank UAB was different than that used for most other schools. UAB has an asterisk next to it on the Times list; the associated footnote states that the “[t]otal is known to include cases from a medical school, medical center, teaching hospital or clinical setting.” But the article and list remained online early Thursday without a correction, update or additional clarifying language.
‘There’s no way’
None of the more than 20 students who spoke with AL.com on Wednesday said they believed it was possible that UAB had the most coronavirus cases of any university in the nation.
Asked about the Times report, Emma Chippindale, a freshman who lives in student housing, said “there’s no way. Not with all the things we have to do. We take a daily health check before any building we enter. I went to the rec center today and I felt so safe. They make you spray down the machines before and after you use them.”
UAB sophomore Jamaal Burks, a biology/pre-med major who lives on campus in the Rast Hall dormitory, echoed those sentiments.
“Honestly, I feel like things are a lot safer here than a lot of other places,” he said. “I think we’ll make it through the year. With all the steps [UAB has] taken, I think we’re doing real good.”