Today the Washtenaw County Health Department (WCHD) put the undergraduate population of the University of Michigan in lock down in their dormitories. This was done over concerns about COVID-19, and means that they cannot leave their dormitories for the next 14 days other than for essential activities including classes that require in-person activity.
Among the activities curtailed were some student research projects being performed as supplemental activity or paid employment. In contrast, research as a requirement for credit courses or a thesis proposal is acceptable. Students are also allowed to go to intercollegiate athletic practices or to participate in outdoor exercise in groups of two or less.
This decision did not affect graduate students or medical students who are expected to continue to perform research and other activities.
Many are asking what prompted this decision, which although it was made by the County Health Department was supported in a statement by University President Schlissel and other University officers.
According to the WCHD, as of October 19, 2020, there had been only 4,229 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in all of Washtenaw County since the beginning of the pandemic; but despite the efforts of WCHD and U-M, there have been more than 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in students at U-M since the start of the fall semester.
For perspective, in the middle of August, prior to move-in, U-M related cases were 2% of the total Washtenaw County cases. Today, U-M related cases are 61% of the total Washtenaw County cases.
Despite the fact that the number of cases in the University undergraduate population is below several national metrics for concern (1,000 positives in 24,000+ students, or <4.2%), and there was no rise in serious COVID-19 illness in this population (University Hospital has only 18 COVID-19 patients total), these actions were taken proactively. There also was no evidence that these student cases had triggered a surge in infections in other County residents. However, several issues caused the County to take this intervention.
Concerns were raised because student COVID-19 test positives were on the rise, the student isolation dorms were filling up, and outbreaks in two dorms had required the need for social distancing. Many of the outbreaks appear to be due to parties and other social activities. Students had also not volunteered for random COVID-19 screening as readily as the University had hoped.
Maybe the most concerning issue was that the first football game is this coming Saturday with the next game on Halloween the following Saturday. These are traditional party opportunities and posed fears of larger outbreaks.
Interestingly, there are two relatively unique aspects of this order. First, WCHD says that students who live in U-M housing may only return to their permanent address if they follow U-M testing and checkout procedures (which have not yet been defined) to lower the risk that they might carry disease home with them.
If students living in Michigan Housing or having dining plans return to their permanent residence, the University is working out details to provide prorated room and board refunds or credits. The University also says these refunds will be subject to potential financial aid implications that will need to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Importantly, once a student returns home, for safety reasons, they will not be allowed to return to campus.
Additionally, the WCHD also provides several metrics where the Order may be extended beyond November 3, 2020 and result in more restrictive measures being placed on students.
Those of us living in Washtenaw County appreciate the diligence of the WCHD in monitoring this situation. I am personally disappointed for the undergraduate student body which had, for the most part, conducted itself well in this unusual situation. Not surprisingly, I think many faculty may be left with some confusion about the complex and potentially inequitable interventions, and their impact on the University’s educational process.