CDC reports spike in coronavirus cases near college campuses

In counties where large colleges and universities opened for in-person classes in the fall, COVID-19 cases rose by more than 50%. That is according to new research by the CDC.

The study analyzed not-for-profit schools with 20,000 or more students across 101 counties nationwide. Within three weeks of campuses opening for in-person instruction, those localities saw a surge in the incidence of coronavirus cases.

Back in early August COVID-19 cases were on the decline.  By the end of the month, the fall semester had started and college campuses across the country were dealing with coronavirus outbreaks.

"Universities that tried to bring their students back had a lot of students who were not behaving very well before the start of classes with large parties and unmasking at the fraternities and things like that," said USF College of Public Health Distinguished Professor, Dr. Thomas Unnasch.

Students pivoted to online learning, facilities were temporarily shuttered, and sporting events canceled.

A new CDC report finds in-classroom learning at colleges and universities were major drivers of the surge across the country.

"Indicating that the universities were really contributing to a real increase in the rate of infections in the communities in which they were embedded," Unnasch said.

It was not just more people contracting COVID-19.  According to the CDC study, the counties where these schools also saw more testing, a higher percent positivity, and were more likely to be identified as hotspots.

"Once they saw what was happening a lot of these University Administrators really started to crackdown," said Unnasch.

The counties where schools did remote learning experienced a 17.8% drop in incidence, while counties where students remained in the classrooms had a 56% increase.

"Once again underlines the fact that no matter who you are or how old you are, if you behave irresponsibly the virus is going to take advantage of that," Unnasch said.

Unnasch tells us the spike of cases happening now is not due to campus life.  However, the CDC research shows it is critical for colleges and universities to have policies and procedures in place to reduce COVID-19 transmission.

"I think if you get out there, and you get the right message out there, and you develop a decent layered program, these sorts of problems that they saw in August and September can be avoided," said Unnasch.

Many college students here in our area have been home since Thanksgiving break and will be starting the spring semester over the next few weeks.  Experts say the schools need to have an aggressive testing, screening, and quarantine plan in place since there is widespread community transmission of COVID-19 already happening.