In a video message this week, University of Virginia President James Ryan warned students that unless they all follow the university’s COVID-19 rules, “getting to Thanksgiving is going to be hard.”
COVID-19 cases are rising, he said. Quarantine space is filling up, not all students are wearing masks and officials have heard of several “large student gatherings” in the past weeks.
Ryan also singled out bars as a key problem.
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“Our medical experts have identified bars as among the highest-risk locations,” he said. These issues together have “caused concern among our public health experts, who worry that we may be headed in the wrong direction.”
The university responded this week by imposing additional, yet stricter, rules students must follow. Gatherings — either on Grounds or off — can be no more than five people, masks must be worn all the time and all students are barred from leaving Charlottesville or hosting out-of-town guests.
Officials say they are ready to punish students who don’t follow the rules. The university has already issued “interim suspensions to several students for intentionally disregarding policies around gatherings, masking and social distancing,” Ryan said.
A university spokesman would not say how many students were suspended or what their infractions were.
Officials hope the new rules will quickly curb the virus’ spread — but they will only work if students follow them.
“It’s entering our bubble because some people are breaking the rules,” said Luke Lamberson, a UVA student who lives in the Balz-Dobie residence hall, which was temporarily locked down last week after several students became sick.
“A bubble only works if 100% of the people buy in,” he said. “Like, our outbreak was a few people went out to off-Grounds parties that they probably shouldn’t have been at, and then they got it and brought it back.”
UVA does not release data on where students may have contracted COVID-19.
Lamberson learned of the possible source from “word of mouth” in the dorm.
“We’re all pretty close,” he said.
But the reality that not all students were going to follow COVID-19 safety measures is one Charlottesville officials have warned about since before UVA began its fall semester.
In July, Mayor Nikuyah Walker said that students coming back was “a recipe for disaster.”
And Councilor Sena Magill has repeatedly said she fears students will continue to gather for parties and other activities.
“People have been posting pictures from not very long ago of big parties going on over in the Rugby Road area, and no face masks,” Magill said. “We’re already seeing this. And this is not to punish the kids that are following the guidelines. But it’s so easy right now to say, ‘Oh, well I can just cheat this once.’ That part of the brain that kind of thinks a couple of steps ahead just isn’t fully formed” at that age.
Even when students are following all university guidelines, health officials say containing the virus can still be challenging simply because university students tend to lead highly social lives.
“With students, often, even if they keep their gatherings small, they could be with a different group every night,” said Kate Baker, a COVID epidemiologist and lead case investigator at Thomas Jefferson Health District, who is handling UVA student cases.
“One infected person has the potential, because they have these wider social circles, to spread [the virus] quite a bit more,” she said. “And we do see that.”
Still, sending students home is not an easy decision for any university, said Anne Ridenhour, a student researcher on Davidson College’s new College Crisis Initiative, which is studying how American universities are responding to the COVID pandemic.
Aside from a few universities that closed within the first days of in person class, most large universities are keeping their campuses open. That’s partly because sending students home means possibly spreading coronavirus from a university campus into dozens of other communities, Ridenhour said.
“If you’re sending students home that potentially have COVID, you’re furthering the spread of the disease,” she said.
As of Thursday, there were at least 231 confirmed “active cases” of COVID-19 among the student body, according to the university’s COVID Tracker. The tracker counts only students who receive a positive test through UVA Health or at a UVA facility.
Another issue is that about two-thirds of UVA students live off Grounds in the Charlottesville community. (It’s still unclear exactly how many students are here this year, that number should be available by the end of the month. Last year, there were roughly 25,000 students total.)
Closing the university does not necessarily mean those living off Grounds will go home. But — as President Ryan pointed out in his letter welcoming students back to Grounds — it does mean they would lose access to the testing and other supports provided by the university.
Those students also may no longer have to obey all the university’s COVID rules. Right now, a UVA student living in Charlottesville risks suspension if they, for example, throw a large party or leave town for the weekend.
“Once they’re already there, it’s much harder to send students home,” Ridenhour said. “So schools are having to navigate, OK we brought these students back, how do we do this safely?”
Many schools are taking the same approach as UVA — enacting strict rules and punishing students who violate them.
However, UVA officials may have no choice but to close Grounds if COVID cases become too great for the university to adequately quarantine the sick and exposed who live in the residence halls.
According to the Tracker, on Thursday 28% of the quarantine rooms were filled and 7% of the isolation rooms. Quarantine space is for students who were in “close contact” with someone who tested positive for COVID. Isolation rooms are for students who have the virus.
A university spokesman on Thursday would not say exactly how many quarantine and isolation rooms the university has.
The University’s quarantine and isolation capacity shifts daily, as the University adds or reduces beds based on current needs, as well as shifts beds from quarantine beds to isolation beds, also in accordance with needs,” Brian Coy, a university spokesman, said in an email. “We have more than 1,000 beds at the moment between the two categories and the number shifts frequently.”
It’s also unknown how many of the student cases are students living in the residence halls versus off-Grounds housing.
UVA’s new stricter rules will be in place for the next two weeks.
“We are doing what we can to slow down the spread of the virus and increase our chances of remaining on Grounds all fall,” Ryan said in his message to students. “We hope and trust you will follow these restrictions, but if need be, we will have no choice but to enforce them. … We will also put in place additional restrictions if necessary.”