Colorado State University has had 235 positive coronavirus tests out of more than 20,000 total, for a “slightly higher than 1% prevalence rate,” President Joyce McConnell reported Tuesday.
And while there has been some community spread among students at outside workplaces, university officials said most of the spread they have seen is among roommates.
“There has been transmission in workplaces, in businesses where our students do work,” Mark Barker, co-chairman of the university’s pandemic preparedness team, said during a briefing to the Larimer County commissioners on Tuesday. “It’s hard to say who spread to whom.”
While some students have been exposed to the virus in their workplaces, contact tracing shows that most of the spread among students is in their shared living spaces, he said.
“They typically, because of their living arrangements, are infecting each other,” Barker said in the meeting. “Contact tracing is not showing a wider spread out into the community or to the more at-risk folks on campus.”
Of the students who have tested positive, 50% are asymptomatic, about 48% have mild symptoms and about 2% have more severe symptoms, McConnell said. And only one student has been admitted and treated at a local hospital for the virus. That student was released the same day, so no students from CSU have spent a night at the hospital for the virus, she said.
Most students have been serious about following protocols and staying safe, and the small number who have not have faced disciplinary procedures, McConnell said. The Fort Collins university has not seen the same trend as other colleges of cases spreading widely through parties, Barker added.
“We’ve been very, very intentional about the messaging that has gone out to our students,” he said, noting that the expectations that the students will follow all protocols have been clear.
“By and large, our student population that is living in Fort Collins has bought into their education and are doing the right thing. … By and large, the start of this fall is vastly different than any other fall I’ve been in. It’s just quiet,” Barker said.
Colorado State University began some testing of students in late June and early July, starting with athletes returning to campus. But the big push of testing has occurred since Aug. 17 when all students began returning to school and is continuing, to ensure classes can progress safely, officials explained.
The Colorado State University tests, and positive results, are folded into the overall Larimer County numbers, which show 96,192 tests since March with an overall 3.3% positivity rate communitywide.
Both county health and CSU officials have said it is important to have robust testing in order to control the spread of the virus through the community. One factor that the state considers in deciding which level of rules applies for businesses in each county is the number of cases per 100,000 residents.
This risk factor is going to increase with increased testing, and the CSU numbers in recent months are adding to Larimer County’s total, Commissioner Steve Johnson pointed out. He has criticized the state for looking at this number on its face instead of considering it in relation to the amount of testing conducted.
On Tuesday, the county was at 123 cases per 100,000 residents, much higher than the targeted 50 that would allow the county to apply for the least restrictive layer of state rules, Protect Our Neighbors.
The county is currently at level one of Safer at Home, one step up from Protect Our Neighbors, and must reduce that number to 75 cases per 100,000 to maintain that status and not fall back to the more restrictive level two of Safer at Home. State health officials on Friday notified the county that its level one status is at risk, and health officials are working on a mitigation plan to lower the cases and maintain that level.
County Commissioner Tom Donnelly mentioned the county’s increase in cases from CSU and asked McConnell whether the university had considered moving to fully online education as it did last fall and as many elementary, middle and high schools are doing.
McConnell said the university has worked hard to keep students in person, and as much as 65% of CSU’s classes are face-to-face, hybrid models or some form of experiential learning.
“We think we may be the highest in the United States for face-to-face,” McConnell said, noting that CSU is working hard on testing, sanitizing and distancing to keep as much in-person learning as possible because it provides better education than online.
In the decision, the school also looked at the number of its students — about 24,000 — who are permanent residents of Fort Collins, living and working there, and at the effect on the local economy both in keeping students employed in the community and not laying off workers at CSU.
“If we can do this as well as we are doing it now, in the end it’s actually ultimately better for our community,” McConnell said.
One change the university did make for safety, to prevent traveling on and off campus to other cities and states over the holidays, is that students will leave for Thanksgiving on Nov. 20 and not return to campus until the spring semester in 2021, after Christmas. Classes during that time, including finals, will be remote.
Students will be away for nine weeks, and CSU will be ready for another round of robust testing when they return, McConnell said.
And the university is looking ahead to the spring, not knowing what the pandemic will bring at that time.
McConnell added, “The consideration of canceling spring break is something we’re taking very seriously.”