City DopeNews

UGA Reopening Led to Massive Spike in COVID-19 Cases

This graph depicts the spike in COVID-19 cases in Clarke County since UGA classes started Aug. 20. Credit: Georgia Department of Public Health.

Everyone knew it was coming, and then it came—Athens’ COVID-19 cases spiked almost straight up, thanks largely to University of Georgia students.

Monday, Aug. 31, Clarke County set an unwelcome milestone with 3,000 cumulative cases since March. The following Tuesday, the county saw by far its largest number of positive tests ever for a single day, then broke that record twice in the subsequent four days.

On Sept. 2, UGA released its latest batch of weekly statistics: 821 positive COVID-19 tests for the week of Aug. 24–30, including 798 students and 23 employees. That was a fourfold increase over the previous week and brought the total number of cases at UGA to over 1,000 just two weeks after students moved into the dorms. The figure is also likely to be low—it includes tests conducted on campus as well as those self-reported through the DawgCheck app, but not all students are using DawgCheck. In addition, 5.4% of the 1,800 asymptomatic students and employees tested at Legion Field over the week were positive, up from 2.4% for Aug. 17–23 and 0.4% for Aug. 10–16. That means the virus is spreading, and if the percentages are correct for the whole 50,000-strong UGA community, there could be thousands of asymptomatic carriers walking around with the potential to infect more vulnerable individuals.

“It’s pretty frightening,” Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Melissa Link said last week.

UGA President Jere Morehead issued a statement urging students to continue wearing masks, “make wise decisions,” stay away from venues where social distancing is impossible, and “resist the temptation” to attend social gatherings. (Keep in mind, these are teenagers and twentysomethings.) He also said to “be very careful and think of the health of everyone around you” to students headed out of town for Labor Day weekend. 

Link said she was pleased to see police enforcing the mask ordinance and social distancing requirements downtown. She also echoed Morehead’s concerns about travel, wondering what will happen when students carry the virus back to elderly relatives in their hometowns.

“I fear there will be a lot of funerals around Christmastime across Georgia,” Link said.

UGA is now putting up some quarantined students in local hotels. In addition to 99 dorm rooms reserved for COVID-19 patients, the university is using the 195-room Georgia Center hotel for quarantine, and has “secured nearly 200 rooms from private vendors in the local community.”

Those 500 rooms fall far short of what would be required to quarantine everyone who’s positive, but UGA is still telling students to go home. “Generally, all students, upon receiving the results of a positive test, are encouraged to leave campus immediately and return to their primary residence for support at home whenever possible,” according to a news release. “However, the university is providing housing for those students who are unable to return home for a variety of reasons.

“UGA’s Student Care and Outreach will engage with all students who require isolation and will assist them with support based on their individual circumstances.”

COVID Setback Affects Schools

UGA’s decision to bring students back for in-person instruction and its inability to control the pandemic on campus means that K-12 students are that much further away from being able to go back to school. 

“The UGA effect, as we are aware, is in full force now,” Amy Roark, director of nursing for the Clarke County School District, told school board members at a work session last week. “We’re in a very critical period here in Clarke County. We need to see how our community responds to college students being back, how the university responds to managing their COVID cases.”

After three weeks of encouraging trends in August, COVID-19 cases spiked to record levels. As of Sept. 3, there were 723 cases per 100,000 people in Clarke County over a 14-day period. After a record-setting day of 277 positive tests on Sept. 5, that ratio rose to 960 per 100,000. CCSD officials want to see that number drop to 175 before starting to reopen schools in phases.

“I do think we’re headed in the wrong direction right now,” Roark said. “I hope that we can flatten this curve in time.”

Meanwhile, CCSD continued to prepare for the start of online learning Sept. 8. Chromebooks and iPads for younger students are on back order, but the district has sufficient devices for grades 3-12 and is purchasing additional 1,200 hotspots for students who lack internet access, as well as extending school WiFi into parking lots. Meals are available for pickup from 10:30 a.m.-12 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at Clarke Middle, Hilsman Middle and Whitehead Road Elementary schools, or delivery by school bus. CCSD is also selling desks for $5 that can be picked up at Old Gaines on Sept. 12, 19 or 26. Child-care scholarships are available to qualifying families. 

School board members expressed frustration that some people are not wearing masks and aren’t making the connection between masks and reopening schools. Other parts of Georgia are getting the virus under control. Cobb County, for example, is down to 200 cases per 100,000 and is starting to reopen. Interim superintendent Xernona Thomas called the situation frustrating, but there are factors outside of CCSD’s control.

“Unfortunately, we’re paying a price for other people’s bad decisions,” Roark said.