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How UK is handling COVID-19 as other colleges close down

The University of Kentucky on Wednesday reported a total of 225 COVID-19 cases on campus through Sunday and a positivity rate of just 1.2 percent through its COVID-19 testing initiative, which aimed to test every student who returned to campus this fall.

But a lag in UK’s public reporting and discrepancies between its numbers and those of the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department make it difficult to pinpoint a precise current number of students with positive cases.

The 225 cases reported by UK runs through Sunday. In the three days since then, the local health department has reported 61 cases among UK students.

Overall, the health department has reported that 301 UK students have tested positive since the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Lexington on March 8.

UK’s publicly-reported number is only counting positive cases from the university’s student testing program, which started Aug. 3. UK had tested 18,921 students through Sunday.

The majority of UK’s cases came last week, when the university recorded 142 positives through 9,400 tests. The previous week of testing — Aug. 3 to Aug. 8 — saw 47 positives through 7,885 tests. UK’s testing initiative lasts through Aug. 22. Classes started on Monday.

The health department has added 171 student cases to Lexington’s total since the weekend of Aug. 8, which is when students began moving in. But 118 of those have come since Aug. 13, which is when UK’s K-Week orientation sessions started.

The local health department and UK are using different scopes when reporting numbers, and that’s what’s leading to the discrepancy, according to health department spokesman Kevin Hall. Fayette County’s numbers include every student who is considered a Fayette County resident and has tested positive since March 8, Hall said.

Students from out-of-county are considered Fayette County residents if they decide to quarantine within the county, according to Dr. Kraig Humbaugh, public health commissioner.

Meanwhile, UK is only reporting students who have tested positive through UK’s on-campus testing program. They aren’t counting students who got tested at a doctor’s office, a drive-through testing site off campus, or through other testing programs.

UK’s data also lags behind the health department’s because the university doesn’t publish its data to its dashboard until three days after the tests are completed. In that three-day time frame, UK’s HealthCorps tries to do contact tracing and send data to the county and state. According to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard, test results can take between 24-72 hours to be turned around and sent to contact tracers with the university’s HealthCorps.

Internally, UK doesn’t have a lag in receiving test results, UK spokesperson Jay Blanton said. While the university has only released results through Sunday, Blanton said the university’s positivity rate is still close to 1 percent over the succeeding days.

Students walk along the University of Kentucky campus in Lexington, Ky., on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, during the academic year’s first week of classes. Ryan C. Hermens rhermens@herald-leader.com

The HealthCorps has 14 contact tracers all working out of a converted call center that used to be UK’s faculty club, said Nick Kehrwald, the acting assistant provost for student well-being. The tracers go through five hours of a Johns Hopkins University contact tracer training and spend at least half a day shadowing other contact tracers with the county health department or UK HealthCare.

After notifiying a student that they’ve tested positive, UK’s contact tracers will often ask students to detail their activities in the days prior to being tested and learning of testing positive. Students give a list of close contacts to the tracers — often defined as those they’ve been within six feet of for more than 15 minutes. Kehrwald said that roommates are often part of this group and are usually asked to quarantine.

Students that live off-campus and test positive, are asked to isolate in their residences. On-campus students are given the option to temporarily reside in an isolation dorm or can go home. Kehrwald said it’s common for them to go home. UK’s isolation halls include Ingels Hall, previously graduate housing on Rose Lane, the University Inn and now beds the university has contracted at off-campus hotels.

The university has about 100 isolation beds on-campus and about 100 off-campus, said Sarah Geegan, UK’s director of executive communication. The number of beds has fluctuated as the university has tried to secure off-campus beds, she said.

UK does have students in its isolation dorms, but the number is small, UK spokesperson Jay Blanton said last week. The university won’t release the current number in an effort to protect the privacy of those students since there’s so few. Blanton said the university could reconsider that policy should the number of students in isolation grow.

Piotr Wojcik, a masters candidate in geography and a teaching assistant, said the start of classes this week has been out-of-the ordinary compared to a normal year. He said Tuesday his graduate seminar of about a dozen masked-up students met in Woodland Park. The spaced-out session was partially interrupted by screaming kids and noisy lawnmowers. Wojcik said most in the class don’t think it’s worth meeting on campus and possibly being a risk to the people who will have to clean the spaces after them.

Wojcik is a part of the United Campus Workers of Kentucky, a vocal union of university employees who recently have been pushing for continuous COVID-19 testing through the school year, hazard pay for those working in-person during the pandemic and free healthcare for employees who come down with the contagious respiratory disease.

As a teaching assistant, Wojcik helps lead a 150-person introductory lecture course that is taught in a hybrid style. Half the class meets in-person on Tuesday while the other half watches online. On Thursday, the other half of the class comes in.

Wojcik said some students have told him they’re worried about coming to the in-person lecture because they’re still waiting to receive the results back from the university’s COVID-19 test.

Matt Heil, the circulation manager at the College of Law library, has to report for in-person work on Thursday, he said. He’s yet to receive the results back from his Monday COVID-19 test that he received through the university’s employee testing expansion. While still within the university’s designated timeline to receive results, he’s worried about unknowingly carrying something in to work.

Heil, who is also a member of the union, was critical of how much information has been sent to employees about what to do if the university reverts back to online-only instruction.

“Ultimately what we want is some transparency on what decisions are being made,” Heil said. What’s the line in the sand for going back to all online?”

A combination of several factors will push the university toward considering closing campus, spokesperson Blanton said. Those factors include PPE access, the on-campus impact on hospital beds, UK’s ability to complete screenings and contact tracing, government-issued guidance and positivity rate among tests. The university doesn’t have a specific number to cross on those factors, Blanton said, but the combined status of a number of them could force the university’s hand.

Staff concerns aren’t being taken seriously, Heil said. A plexiglass screen was recently installed on his public-facing circulation desk that he said was too small and was installed without much input from the people working behind the desk. He said he’s also raised concerns with his supervisor and human resources about reservable study rooms that few other libraries on campus have opened.

Hall said the health department feels as though UK has “great people who are doing what they need to be doing” when it comes to managing the pandemic.

“Any time you are dealing with students and a younger population, you want to make sure they are following the rules,” Hall said. He said it’s especially tough to force college-age people to be responsible in a pandemic because they already have a “sense of invincibility.”

Hall said if there was an outbreak on campus, it would not be up to the local health department to ask them to stop holding in-person classes.

“We wouldn’t have the ability to come in and shut them down,” he said. He added that UK has worked closely with the health department, and both sides have made daily calls to continue monitoring the situation.

When announcing decisions to move classes online on Monday, the 30,000-student University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill cited rapid jumps in the number of cases reported among students. UNC announced 130 positive cases in a week with a positivity rate of 13.6 percent and 177 students in isolation.

University of Notre Dame officials elected to temporarily suspend in-person classes on Tuesday, and in their announcement noted a steady increase of positive cases since students returned to campus. Like UK, Notre Dame did student testing largely ahead of classes starting. Of the nearly 12,000 tested at the Indiana campus, only 33 came back positive before classes started on Aug. 10. Since Saturday, Notre Dame has tested 805 students and 170 came back positive — a rate near 20 percent. The university president blamed off-campus gatherings.

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Jeremy Chisenhall covers breaking news for the Lexington Herald-Leader and Kentucky.com. He joined the paper in 2020, and is originally from Erlanger, Ky.


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