by CHRIS ROGERS
Coronavirus infections more than doubled at Winona State University (WSU) last week, the university reported today. One hundred and twelve WSU students and employees tested positive for COVID-19 in a one-week span from August 31 through September 6, as the college’s total rose from 97 to 209 cases. The new figures indicate that the WSU community accounted for the lion’s share of the 128 cases in all of Winona County last week.
Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Infectious Disease Division Director Kris Ehresmann reported that, so far this week, another 27 students, faculty, and staff tested positive, bringing WSU's total to 236 cases as of today.
Saint Mary’s University reported a total of 23 cases at its Winona campus as of today. Minnesota State College Southeast has six cases total.
WSU leaders stated cases among students have been mild or completely symptom-less and they were not aware of any serious illness among students.
Local and WSU officials have said much of the recent spread among students happened off campus. WSU officials said transmission occurred within “tight knit” groups, and WSU President Scott Olson said the recent infections are similar. “The increases in new cases that we’re seeing are not random, widespread. They exist within pockets of friendships and pockets of influence,” Olson stated. Local health officials have cautioned citizens that infections among young adults may spread to throughout the whole community, and Winona County is also seeing significantly more cases among non-college residents, as well.
“We recognize that we have a responsibility to all those affected, the students, the families they come from, our employees, the greater communities here and in Rochester,” WSU President Scott Olson said. In a press conference today, Olson and WSU leaders highlighted the steps the university is taking to reduce transmission, including a temporary shutdown of most on-campus activity and issuing warnings to students who don’t follow COVID-19 precautions. The continued spread among students and staff puts WSU close to the point where the MDH would recommend more drastic steps.
Yesterday, WSU officials began a two-week “quarantine,” shutting down most in-person activities on campus and asking students to stay home at their dorms and apartments as much as possible. “The self-imposed quarantine will reduce the number of people physically present on campus for the next two weeks,” university staff explained in a statement. “Courses with face-to-face instruction will either shift entirely online, or if absolutely necessary, require increased precautions in order to continue in-person instruction. All employees who do not need to be physically present on campus will shift to remote work, and individual campus facilities and other areas may impose additional restrictions as needed.” WSU asked students to remain in Winona, not return to their hometowns, because of the possibility for increased transmission during and after travel.
Olson said MDH officials recommended this temporary closure and he expected it would succeed in reducing the rate of new infections. Better to hold online classes for two weeks than the whole semester, Olson stated, adding that if new cases don’t drop after two weeks, WSU could extend the closure. “We’re pretty confident this is going to work to flatten the line a little bit, so we’ll spend some time in the future thinking about what those future mitigations may be, but for now our goal is to flatten the line and stay in the yellow.”
WSU is currently at level two (yellow) in the MDH’s four-tiered system for combating outbreaks at colleges, with level four (red) being the worst. The guidelines call for moving to level three (orange) if two or more criteria are met. The new uptick — at least 189 students and employees tested positive in the last two weeks — meets one of the criteria: More than three percent of the student body tested positive within two weeks. Two other criteria are close to being met: first, new infections continuing to increase two weeks after implementing level-two mitigation efforts and second, the county’s 14-day case rate per capita exceeding 30. MDH recommendations for level three include imposing a campus curfew, ending all extracurricular activities, closing some gym facilities, trying to restrict visitors in off-campus housing, and planning for a potential permanent switch to online-only learning, if necessary. Level four recommends an end to all in-person instruction.
“We’d very much like to stay in the yellow, and the reason that we took the mitigations yesterday that we did was to stay right there,” Olson said.
University leaders reported that 60 students have been warned for violating COVID-19 precautions and state rules for masking and social distancing. Students can be disciplined for off-campus actions that violate the student code of conduct and jeopardize campus health and safety, and the university relies on students and local police to report such incidents, WSU Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Life Denise McDowell said. Under the school’s student discipline policy, repeat offenders could be required to complete community service, write letters of apology, or face other sanctions, she explained. In an extreme situation, three or more violations could result in a suspension, McDowell added. Expulsion is an option, but that would be a last resort, she stated. “My student code of conduct cannot even fathom having to expel a student for not wearing a mask,” McDowell said.
“We are holding students accountable,” Olson stated. “We are taking sanctions against students that are not complying. We are trying to take an educational approach, which means encouraging good behavior, but if students aren’t following that, we do have the ability to impose sanctions,” he added.
“We are hopeful that these actions will flatten the growth in numbers,” Olson said in a statement. “We will continue to monitor this evolving situation and take appropriate actions as needed.”
"The action Winona State took was a very strong action and hopefully will have an impact on the spread within the campus,” Ehresmann said, adding that MDH is working with each college dealing with an outbreak to understand how transmission is occurring and what mitigation efforts would be most effective.