by CHRIS ROGERS
Following a serious spike in cases at its campus, Winona State University (WSU) officials expressed optimism about the school’s efforts to bring the outbreak under control. Meanwhile, new infections countywide remained high.
From August 25-30, WSU’s COVID-19 case total jumped from 20 to 97, the university reported last Wednesday. That indicates WSU students and staff made up 80 percent of the county’s 120-case surge during those six days. University officials did not have more up-to-date numbers. Countywide, 85 more cases have poured in since the 30th.
This is by far the largest surge in Winona County since the pandemic began. The per capita case rate doubled in just four days, and Winona County is suddenly the 133rd worst county in the entire U.S. when it comes to new cases per capita, according to the Harvard and Brown universities. The spike caused Winona Area Public Schools to move all secondary classes online and required Winona County Public Health to seek help from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) in contact tracing. While the majority of patients are ages 18-24, health officials cautioned that the coronavirus is spreading throughout the community and young adults are not the only ones at risk for spreading or catching the virus.
In a Wednesday morning press conference, WSU President Scott Olson said, “We recognize the effect this is having on the community. That is why we are talking to you today. We want to be very transparent with the community.”
The recent virus transmissions primarily occurred among smaller groups, not big, “super spreader” events on or off campus, WSU Vice President for Enrollment and Student Life Denise McDowell said. “What we’re seeing is more in tight knit groups,” she stated. “Students are hanging out with one another — students who know who each other are, and we’re able to link and make the connections,” McDowell continued. “That’s what gives us the confidence we can box this in and contain it, because at least we have a way to link who the students are with and they’re not just with random people.”
Winona County health officials described many of the recent infections as the result of people going to events and gatherings without following guidelines to wear a masks, stay six feet apart, and limit social gatherings to 10 people indoors or 25 outside.
“I think what we’re seeing happen is somewhat expected given we just had a lot of people enter and return to this community,” MDH Epidemiology Supervisor Cynthia Kenyon stated at the press conference. “I’m hoping with all these responsive actions the university is taking, the students are taking, and the community is taking, we can try to get in front of this and slow it down,” she said.
WSU has many safety precautions on campus: daily health screenings, mask requirements, social distancing in every classroom, some outdoor classes, and one-way hallways, entrances, and exits. Only around 10 percent of its classes are meeting in-person to begin with, and enrollment is down significantly this fall. The university is taking further steps in response to the recent spike — some above and beyond what MDH currently recommends, such as restricting visitors in dorms. “When I walk around campus, in buildings, I am seeing good, even great behavior by our students and employees,” Olson said.
However, some local officials and university leaders highlighted the issue of off-campus spread. “We feel very strongly that the colleges and universities have done their best job to make sure that on-campus activities — they’re doing the best to mitigate virus spread — and are also understanding our concerns about activities off campus and are trying to help us in that area, as well,” Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi said. Some bars were crowded when students first returned, but for the last two weekends, city firefighters and police officers have been conducting capacity checks at bars and that issue has significantly improved, he noted. McDowell said she is seeing fewer students gathering for yard games at apartments. Sarvi thanked landlords: “They have done an excellent job of keeping those parties in check.”
“We want to be able to stay on campus,” WSU Student Senate President Clara Kuerschner said. “We don’t want to get sent home. So we want to keep our students safe. We don’t want to see them going out. We don’t want to see them getting COVID.” Kenyon praised students for being very responsive to contact tracers. Kuerschner added that the Student Senate had even asked the Winona City Council to reduce bar capacity below the state’s limits, but Sarvi said that might ruin bars’ financial viability.
In the MDH’s four-tiered system for responding to COVID-19 outbreaks at colleges, WSU is already at level two, or “yellow,” signifying that “transmission levels are beginning to tax campus resources.” The university is on track to reach level three, “orange,” unless the current trends turn around. Under the orange level, MDH would recommend a campus curfew, encourage WSU to work with landlords to limit visitors in off-campus housing, and move student support services exclusively online, among other steps. The final level, “red,” recommends virtual-only instruction for the whole university.
Under MDH guidelines, WSU could reach orange if any two of the following criteria are met: countywide infections keep rising for 14 days; 158 students are infected within a two-week stretch, WSU’s isolation and quarantine beds exceed 75-percent capacity; “students and staff are not complying with public health mitigation recommendations, such as masking, social distancing, and avoiding social gatherings;” or the the MDH 14-day case rate per capita exceeds 30. So far, the two-week trend for countywide infections is still rising, and the county’s 14-day case rate is over 30.
“It is a concern,” Olson said when asked whether WSU might reach the orange level. “We’re watching that closely,” he stated.
“What’s going to happen over Labor Day? That’s another concern for us,” McDowell said. “As students start going home and they come back, do we start this cycle all over again as we try to settle back down?”
“If we do go to level three, which is an orange level, that will require further mitigation on our part, but we will make sure that you know that soon after the decision is made,” Olson pledged.
For now, WSU is looking at how it can to start to implement some of the orange level mitigation measures early — such as moving more classes online, offering more grab and go dining options or even organizing a delivery service, McDowell said. The university is redoubling its “Count on me” education campaign to emphasize the importance of everyone wearing masks, practicing social distancing, and isolating when sick. Finally, McDowell added, “We’re trying to understand who is infected, reach them early, identify their contacts and quarantine and isolate as appropriate.”
WSU officials said they have well over 300 quarantine and isolation beds available for students living on campus — places where they can stay while sick or after being exposed. In a crisis, the university could expand that number to over 1,500 beds. WSU doesn’t offer quarantine and isolation beds to students living off-campus. Asked why, McDowell explained, “I think we would max out our capacity long before we got started. I just don’t think we have the structure right now to handle it.” WSU is considering whether it could offer that in an emergency, she added.
While WSU students and employees made up the bulk of this recent outbreak, it affects everyone in the Winona area. Health officials urged all citizens to wear masks, stay six feet apart from others, and avoid crowds. When contact tracers leave a voicemail, Winona County Emergency Management Director Ben Klinger said, “Make sure you call back.” He continued, “Make sure you’re honest with the contact tracers you’re with, and that’s to protect everybody. We’re not out to get anybody in trouble.” People under isolation and quarantine need to stay home, Klinger stated, saying the county had received reports of people going to work anyway. If finances are a problem while under quarantine, contact Winona Volunteer Services or Winona County Health and Human Services; there is funding to help people, he said. “We just need to come together as a community and all buckle down and do this and get through, and then we’ll all enjoy the other side,” Klinger stated.