Ali Sullivan on the virtual UVA town hall about the university’s COVID-19 spike. Credit: WTJU

Cases of COVID-19 are falling precipitously in Virginia but not in Charlottesville, which is experiencing a “severe outbreak” of the virus. Responsible for the recent uptick in cases is the University of Virginia, where daily case counts have remained well above 100 throughout this week. 

In a webinar town hall on Friday, UVA officials said they are working with the local health district to monitor transmission of COVID-19 from university students into the surrounding community.

“We need to understand if there’s any potential for the impact of COVID within the university to have on our broader community,” Costi Sifri, director of epidemiology for UVA Health, said. “We work closely with contact tracers to understand what the interactions are with students and the community at large.”

Sifri also noted that no students have to date been hospitalized with COVID-19. In recent weeks, the number of new hospitalizations of patients sick with COVID-19 has decreased at UVA Health. 

The university touted zero evidence of COVID transmission into the broader community as a victory of its fall semester. Currently, 75% of the university’s 844 active COVID cases are located off Grounds. 

Whereas students residing in on-Grounds dormitories or apartments are sent to designated quarantine areas if they are exposed to or test positive for COVID-19, those living off Grounds are asked to self-isolate in their residences, with the option to relocate to the university’s quarantine spaces. 

Quarantine and isolation spaces are at 49% and 21% occupancy, respectively — but UVA Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis noted in the town hall that the university can always “flex up” quarantine space, if necessary. 

In the face of skyrocketing cases, the university implemented myriad new restrictions — such as a ban on all in-person gatherings — that will be reevaluated on Feb. 26. UVA President Jim Ryan said that adherence to such restrictions is critical to flattening the curve. 

“We’re at the point in case numbers where it would be easy to tip into a spiral that could overwhelm our capacity to deal with the virus: we could run out of space for isolation and quarantine, or we could inadvertently spread the virus into the local community,” Ryan said. “Either of those scenarios would mean that we have to continue, or perhaps even tighten, current restrictions.”

He reiterated that widespread noncompliance with previous guidelines is to blame for rising cases and cannot be attributed to one group. Although there is “no doubt” that Greek life recruitment contributed to the spread of COVID-19, Ryan said that there were “dozens if not hundreds” of student interactions that contributed to high case numbers.

So far, the university has sanctioned five Inter-Fraternity Council organizations as well as several university-affiliated organizations and individuals for COVID rule violations.

“We should beware of and reject a single, simplistic narrative where there’s one villain or one villainous group to blame. The fact is that there are multiple causes across a range of groups and individuals, some were willful and others far more innocent,” Ryan said. 

Ryan added that the rise of COVID cases is not attributable to “a particular variant of the virus.” The more contagious U.K. variant of COVID-19 was discovered at the university on Feb. 12.

However, Mitch Rosner, chair of the UVA Medicine Department, said that officials expect the influence of the U.K. virus variant to grow, given that it has already been discovered in the community. Exact data on the prevalence of COVID-19 variants at the university is unavailable, given the state’s limited capacity to sequence viral genetic material at this time. 

“This variant really ups the ante, it will find the cracks in our armor, it’s more likely to infect those people who aren’t following the guidelines,” Rosner said. 

Even with daily new cases at an all-time high at the university, Ryan said that sending students home mid-semester would be “the very last measure” that the school would take. 

“Our serious hope is never to reach that point because that carries risks in and of itself,” Ryan said. 


Ali Sullivan is a graduate of the University of Virginia. She received a B.A. in Media Studies and Government in 2020.