A lthough cases of COVID-19 increased when students returned to campus for the fall semester, cases in six of nine counties home to Big 12 Conference universities saw their biggest spikes during the holidays — after students returned home.
After universities regained control of the virus’ spread when students came back, there were some smaller spikes throughout the fall months, but the counties that house OU, Oklahoma State, the University of Texas, Texas Christian University, Baylor University and Kansas State University all saw their new-case peaks after thousands of students left for the holidays, according to data compiled by The OU Daily.
The true test, however, may be in a few weeks, as universities and local leadership are rebooting campuses for a second time amid higher numbers of cases while combating rising pandemic fatigue, vaccine rollouts and new strains of the virus.
Success, according to university, city and national leaders on the subject, will ride on the key determinate from the fall — collaboration between campus and city or county officials, with the added challenge of overcoming conflicting messaging between many students’ hometowns and campuses.
The Daily examined new cases between March and Jan. 15 in Big 12 counties other than West Virginia’s Monongalia County, due to regional proximity. The analysis shows Texas Tech’s Lubbock County had the highest number of days in which new cases per 100,000 people surpassed 100, at 47, with OU tied for third in the counties measured at 12 days.
“If you're telling me that people can travel on and off-campus and go home on weekends to other communities, it would seem unlikely that some of the students wouldn't be bringing COVID back to campus,” said Anita Barkin, co-chair of the COVID-19 Task Force at the American College Health Association. “Especially if you’re going to communities where there's no mask mandate. … A big part of the problem with this from the very beginning has been the mixed messaging and the fact that this has been politicized to a point where we don't have a national strategy.”
Barkin said pre- and on-arrival testing was a crucial starting point for universities that began the fall semester with in-person classes. She said following up with more frequent testing has been one of schools’ best strategies to catch false-negatives or those who subsequently contracted the virus. Random testing and wastewater testing also have been successful monitoring methods, Barkin said, strategies some Big 12 schools like OU, Oklahoma State and Baylor have implemented.
“So much of this is resource-dependent, because smaller schools or less well-resourced schools, simply the testing is very expensive, and it's labor-intensive,” Barkin said. “So if you don't have the money or the staffing, it's hard to do frequent testing.”
OU mailed pre-arrival testing in the spring semester for those living on campus, with the university coordinating with OSU on testing protocols throughout the past semester, said Dr. Dale Bratzler, OU’s chief COVID officer.
On Jan. 22, Oklahoma was 10th in the nation in terms of statewide population incidence of COVID-19, Bratzler said. Just a week prior, Oklahoma was ranked third with 103 cases per 100,000 people.
Another wrinkle in university precautions, Barkin said, is that schools in some smaller communities can more easily create a “safety net” with resources to discourage off-campus travel, but schools that are more integrated within the larger communities — and have students who are more likely to come and go — can have difficulties containing their populations. Sarah Lawrence College in New York was an example of a smaller school that created this safety net, Barkin said, with almost 50 percent fewer undergraduate students on campus, adjusted walking routes and grab-and-go meals, among other measures according to National Geographic.
Barkin also mentioned Duke University is a larger school that has managed the pandemic well. With 15,634 students, the university required students to sign a “Duke Compact,” “agreeing to observe mandatory masking, social distancing, and participation in entry and surveillance testing.” The university also developed an app monitoring student symptoms, tracked COVID tests and results and used pooled testing to maximize resource efficiency.
With OU having implemented social distancing requirements, limits on class sizes and a mask mandate, Norman Mayor Breea Clark said managing students can be done on campus, but students’ behavior off-campus is where Norman residents bear the brunt of student impact. The restrictions at OU and in Norman also may not have aligned with where students returned home for the holidays; however, and off-campus guidelines were violated throughout the fall semester, especially on Campus Corner.
“Where all the partying is happening, most Norman residents aren’t going. It’s just the students, but unfortunately our students do go to our restaurants, they work in our restaurants, they work in our stores, they go to our stores,” said Clark, who along with city councilmembers enacted a local mask mandate in July — even as there’s been no such statewide order — which was recently extended into March 2021. “This is obviously a very contagious virus, and so it has raised a lot of concerns about general safety in our community.”
“When people are saying ‘college students are responsible,’ I'm like, ‘Well, if college students are coming from communities, or they're hearing within their own family the minimization of the seriousness of this, how can you expect them then to come to campus and comply with everything you're telling them to comply with, when the messaging that they've heard to that point has been the opposite of what you're asking them to do?’” Barkin said. “It makes it very difficult, and to lay all the responsibility at the door of the student, it seems to me, is rather unfair.”
DATA AND UNIVERSITY STRATEGIES
S tates are in a coronavirus “red zone” if they have more than 100 cases per 100,000 population in a week, according to White House documents provided by the Center for Public Integrity. Lubbock County, home of Texas Tech, has had 47 such days above the 100-case benchmark since March, the highest among Big 12 universities The Daily measured. OU’s Cleveland County had 12 days, with 11 of those days — and its peak — after students left for the holidays.
“I think a lot of the bump that we saw around the holidays was holiday-related,” Bratzler said. “So students went home, families got together. And that huge surge that we saw probably was related to the holidays themselves, not the fact that universities were open or closed or anything else. More people went home and did events, family events and other things, where there was a lot of travel — the most travel that we've had since the start of the pandemic happened over the Christmas break.”
Iowa State’s Story County had the second-highest number of red zone days with 23. OU’s Cleveland County and Oklahoma State’s Payne County ranked third with 12 days. TCU’s Tarrant County had 10, Baylor University’s McLennan County had seven, Kansas State University’s Riley County had four, the University of Texas’ Travis County had one, and the University of Kansas’ Douglas County had zero red-zone days.
Dr. Kristen Obbink, Iowa State’s COVID-19 public health coordinator, said it’s hard to compare universities since students’ proportion of the county population varies. For example, Iowa State’s fall 2020 enrollment of 31,825 vs. Story County’s 97,117 residents means Cyclone students comprise nearly 33 percent of the county. By comparison, OU’s fall enrollment of 27,782 translates to less than 10 percent of the county.
Of the Big 12 schools The Daily examined, Iowa State has the largest student-to-county population. Oklahoma State was second, at 30.14 percent, then Kansas State at 28 percent, followed by Kansas and Texas Tech at 19.60 and just under 13 percent, respectively.
Baylor, Texas and TCU students account for 7.52 percent, 3.14 percent and .54 percent of their county populations, respectively.
“Everyone has different access to testing resources ... communities can just be varied in so many different ways … even the type of testing that you're doing,” Obbink said. “But in doing that, and then if you look at others that maybe use other types of testing, even that is hard to compare from place to place, because they just vary so much that you might be looking at apples and oranges instead of apples to apples. But yeah, certainly I think, while we do differ so much from area to area, we've all faced similar challenges as COVID has progressed (and) we learned to identify those.”
OU has been following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as physical distancing, masking and upgrading air filtration systems, Bratzler said. For OU, working with other schools on mitigation strategies has mostly been limited to state universities like Oklahoma State.
“Folks from OSU and I both routinely meet with the (state) regents to help coordinate,” Bratzler said, noting Oklahoma’s two largest universities have also been helping provide guidance to the smaller schools throughout the state.
Bratzler said he meets with the state regents routinely, and occasionally they have conference calls with university presidents to discuss mitigation strategies. The most interaction he has with other schools is regarding athletics, since there is a “very, very coordinated” response for all student athletes throughout the Big 12, with the conference playing 52 of 55 potential regular-season football games, according to the Associated Press. By comparison, the Big Ten Conference played 50 of 63 potential games, including the championship game, and the Pac-12 Conference played 31 of 42 potential games.
OU has worked with other schools to determine protocols for stadium management, team travel and other issues regarding its athletic teams, Bratzler said, and with only one football game canceled after the new schedule was released — the Sooners’ matchup against West Virginia — he believes they’ve done well in keeping athletes safe. Between July and Dec. 26, OU has administered more than 8,600 tests in the athletic department, with 153 positives, according to releases from the athletic department — although that number does not match the total number of reported recoveries at 294.
“We looked at quite a few universities at the start of the (fall) semester about testing strategies,” Bratzler said of OU at large. “It was part of how we came up with the decision to test all the students who have moved into congregate housing. But also we decided to focus fairly specifically on how we could do testing … we did do a large random sample of residence hall students a bit earlier in the (fall) semester, but recognize that our biggest challenge is the cost of the test.”
CARES act funding, which originally allocated $18 million to OU, has run out, Bratzler said. Half of those dollars went toward emergency grants to students, and remaining funding has paid for some of the on-campus testing — with all tests for Cate Center and pre-arrival testing at $100 or more per test. A new bill passed by congress did allocate additional funding for testing, and although IMMY labs — a popular Norman testing facility — shut down testing for a few days in early January, a new contract has resumed testing.
OU has discussed their own random testing of the university community, but Bratzler said attorneys have advised required testing would be very difficult except in residential housing since students who live there sign a contract with the university.
“That's why we're really excited about the rapid test, the antigen test, that we could potentially do on campus, more often, (with) bigger group of students. We're just working through the logistics,” Bratzler said. “The biggest challenge with them is each one individually has to be handled, and you have to watch it for 15 minutes. So just the personnel to do the huge student body that we have on the Norman campus (is a challenge).”
Events are planned on campus for students using the rapid antigen test, with the university initially securing around 30,000 of the BinaxNOW card test.
“We just got back the preliminary results on our Vault testing of the students moving back in the dormitories (this semester), and the positive rate was 3.5 percent or something; pretty low,” Bratzler said. “Our goal is to have some big testing events on campus when I can potentially coordinate some of our Health Sciences Center students to come down and help us do it, but to screen large numbers of students.”
SHARED GOVERNANCE KEY
T he university working with the local government has been crucial. Cleveland County’s highest spike during in-person classes — 114.78 new cases per 100,000 people — hit Nov. 7, a week after Halloween and about a week and a half after an ice storm left thousands in Norman without power for days, leading some community members to break their self-isolation practices. The county’s highest spike overall was Jan. 3 at 201.75 cases, a little over a week after Christmas Day. This was the same day as Payne County’s second-highest spike at 261.66.
Bratzler sits on the emergency operations committee for the city, which reviews and coordinates efforts on protocols enacted by the university and Norman as a whole.
“We think it's very, very important — the role of the university and impacting the city of Norman in Cleveland County — so we're very conscious of that, and work very closely with them,” Bratzler said.
Iowa State has also been working with its local government in combating COVID-19 in Ames, especially with the Story County public health department. Obbink said the university had to “step in and step up” with all the resources they would need in virus prevention efforts since the county health department is quite small, and Iowa State makes up a large part of the county’s population.
Iowa State has taken on all of its own contact tracing and case investigation efforts to help the county health department, Obbink said, something that makes it unique compared to other Iowa schools. They’ve also worked closely with the American College Health Association, which Bratzler personally has not worked with, and Iowa State’s director of student health services attends all of the association’s meetings and webinars.
Whenever the college health association issues new recommendations, Iowa State updates its senior leadership team and makes modifications if needed. The association specifically helped with recommendations for campus messaging targeting students going home for Thanksgiving, Barkin said.
“We're very lucky to have great relationships with our county health department, as well as our county board of health, and, in addition, our community partners, so not just here in the city of Ames. But even beyond that, in Story County, so our different health care facilities or school districts, city staff, all of those types and groups of people,” Obbink said.
In Norman, Clark has consulted Stillwater Mayor Will Joyce on strategies for college towns, and said the fluctuation in population when students arrive and leave is one of the hardest challenges COVID-19 presents. Although she communicates with other college-town mayors, she said it’s harder to work with other schools across the country since each state is impacted so differently.
Texas has had a statewide mask mandate since July 3, with some counties offered exemptions, and Kansas had a recent renewal of a statewide mask mandate also with exemptions, but Oklahoma has never had a statewide mask mandate. Iowa developed a mask mandate in mid-November. As of Jan. 26, Oklahoma is ranked eighth in the country in terms of recent case counts, with a daily average of 2,577 new cases in the past seven days, according to the New York Times.
“In the middle of a pandemic, when you have 20,000-plus young people return to your community, you have to be aware of it and work closely with our university partners. … It's obviously nothing new and everyone enjoys, I think, a quiet summer in Norman and then the energy of the return in fall in terms of the economy,” Clark said. “But also the fact that the population increase is coming from a group of residents who are social in nature, and are here for an experience that involves not only getting an education, but a social experience, so that has been difficult as well.”
“So that's been a challenge that I, frankly, don't think any university has solved.”
Clark said she appreciated OU’s efforts to ensure campus safety during the pandemic, but city and university administrators still had to have open communication regarding students’ off-campus behavior.
“There's no easy answer to any of this, and so I appreciate all the efforts that OU has done, and I honestly believe they've done everything they can, but young people are social in nature. And as much as we'd like to think that they came back to college for the education only, it's just simply not true,” Clark said. “And I tried to think back to 21-year-old Breea; would I have been able to have the restraint? Especially if it was maybe my last year of college or, or something like that, to do this? And I wish I could say yes, but I don't know ...
“It was either not bring them back at all, or do everything you can when you bring them back. And that was the option that we took. And could it have been better? Yes. Could it have been worse? Yes. So I think we're all doing the best we can.”
GRADING THE GUIDELINES
O f all the Big 12 counties The Daily examined, Texas Tech had the most red zone days and Oklahoma State had the single highest day. On Jan. 8, Payne County recorded 294.68 new cases per 100,000 people; the next highest spike The Daily found from another county was in TCU’s Tarrant County at 258.79 cases per 100,000 people Dec. 29, with Texas Tech following at 248.58 cases on Nov. 16.
Baylor’s McLennan County was the fourth-highest spike, at 210.82 cases per 100,000 people Dec. 29, OU’s Cleveland County was the fifth-highest at 201.75 on Jan. 3, and KSU’s Riley County was the sixth-highest with 160.31 on Dec. 4. UT’s Travis County and KU’s Douglas County followed, with 114.68 cases Jan. 14 and 95.7 cases Nov. 20, respectively.
Obbink said that with more testing on university campuses comes more identified positives, and that Iowa State was doing “a lot of testing," which can contribute to the increased new case rates in the county. During the fall semester, Iowa State did not have any evidence of classroom transmission of the virus, which OU officials have also touted.
The state of Iowa had a massive outbreak as students returned to school at the beginning of the fall semester, and was one of four states that experienced significant upticks in new cases across the Midwest in September, according to The New York Times.
Iowa’s governor did not impose a statewide mask mandate until Nov. 16 after previously claiming mask-wearing was a “feel-good” measure, and Oklahoma has never imposed a statewide mandate. Obbink said the city of Ames and Story County have both put mask mandates in place over the past few months, similar to measures some Oklahoma localities — like Norman — have put in place.
“(Local government efforts have) been really helpful. And then we've always had a mask mandate here on campus, but then that expanded significantly as the semester went on,” Obbink said.
Bratzler said he’s been tracking the population incidence of new cases across the state in particular. These numbers show Cleveland County is fairly low, below the state average of new cases, but he has been splitting Norman from the rest of Cleveland County — as Moore has had some of the highest rates of transmissions in the state, with a lack of restrictions in the city. Rural Oklahoma counties have continued to increase, with spikes in Payne County, which have since dropped dramatically, and Alfalfa County — which was at one point second-highest county in the nation in population incidence.
“The script is flipped,” Clark said. “Before it was like, ‘Oh, man, the students are going to bring stuff back to the rural communities.’ And I'm like, ‘Please don't bring what's in the rural communities back to Norman on your way here.’”
Moving forward, OU has already received doses of the Pfizer vaccine that was recently approved by the FDA. However, Bratzler said he does not expect it to have much of an impact on the university until next fall since the first doses will go to healthcare workers, then elderly people or those with high-risk conditions. College-aged students without any preexisting conditions or who do not live in congregate housing are expected to be vaccinated in phase three of Oklahoma’s COVID vaccine distribution.
“I just think it's going to be a while before there's a sufficient number of doses available to actually start moving into lower-risk populations of people, such as students, and many of the staff and faculty,” Bratzler said. “So I don't expect to see too much change for the spring semester; I think we will very much still be doing mitigation strategies. I have sincere hopes that as we start to vaccinate more and more people, it'll be harder and harder for the virus to spread from person to person.”
“But I think we're a ways away from that right now.”
It all leaves Bratzler, Barkin and local leaders like Clark hoping to help people they lead to stay the course, to continue to take things seriously and to not let their guards down.
“I think it's going to be a lot of the same issues, unfortunately,” Clark said. “It will be great on campus, the testing will go well. And then the social part will be the biggest battle we fight.”
UPDATE: This story was edited at 12:30 p.m. on Feb. 2 to reflect that the university received 30,000 BinaxNOW Card tests, not 300,000, as The Daily was originally told.