How did this campus outbreak happen?

Jessie Castellano

This Saturday, we saw a major rise in COVID-19 cases at the University, with the University burgeoning from two active cases to 10 in a matter of two days. Nine of those cases were students, along with one faculty member. Throughout the whole semester, no week has matched what we have seen happen this week; indeed, the past few days alone are responsible for more than a third of our cumulative cases up to this point. What happened?

As the semester goes on, campus has increasingly felt “back to normal.” University students and faculty have been doing a very good job of protecting themselves against the pandemic and creating a bubble to protect us from outside influence. A few weeks ago, the University placed harsher restrictions on travel, not allowing students to travel more than 30 miles off-campus. Compared to most universities in the United States, the University has entertained a much stricter testing and regulatory regime and maintained it throughout the semester. The results have been unequivocally successful; in the nearly 10 weeks that students have been on campus, there have been little to no active COVID-19 cases. Especially in the past two weeks before this weekend, there have been zero positive cases on campus.

Combine this with the fact that Union County cases have been on the low side compared with other Pennsylvania counties, notwithstanding a slight rise from an outbreak at the Lewisburg Federal Prison before student arrival in August. But this recent outbreak has raised concerns that the University’s luck has potentially run out.

Plenty of groups come together on campus each week; classes, clubs and sports teams in groups of 10 or larger meet every day. In the past few weeks, sports teams have progressed from re-acclimation practices to full team practices with groups that range from 10 to nearly 50 participants. In addition to practices, teams are generally exposed to each other from locker rooms, living together and other team gatherings. Athletics and the progressing of practices may create a sense of normalcy for athletes on campus. Most teams and coaches have been strict on following CDC guidelines by wearing masks and following other safety protocols. 

Nonetheless, students and faculty have been feeling safe on campus within the little bubble that we have created. The feeling of safety on campus leads to an impression of routine by the student body. With the “safety net” in place for emergencies, students feel at liberty to conduct themselves without due caution; this could be the main reason for the outbreak, since students have been letting their guard down and are less wary even of joining together in large groups, hosting get-togethers downtown and failing to wear a mask when stepping outside.

This is not to say that as students we should be less careful about who we spend our time with, but it is this creeping normalcy that creates the most immediate danger. The United States just experienced its worst week of the pandemic; in the past few weeks, we felt “normal” and it has resulted in a disastrous, cataclysmic pandemic containment. When we all return home for winter break, we’ll need to be more aware of the pandemic around the country. Hopefully, with the effort from students and university leaders, we can get back to a place where we feel safe on campus again.

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