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Colleges and coronavirus: September 18, 2020

Summarizing the growing outbreaks and increasing cases among universities in San Diego County. SDSU drives county case rate, USD welcomes latest batch of students
Credit: Photo by Anne Wernikoff
Medical assistant Maria Duran instructs students on how to self-swab during a COVID-19 test at University Health Services at UC Berkeley on Sept. 4, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

SAN DIEGO — San Diego County is home to many universities, and collectively, is hosting more than 10,000 students in residential housing this semester alone.

Even with reopening plans offered in different fashions for nearly every local university, there is a deeper problem nationwide. Students continue to get sick, and potentially driving up their college town’s coronavirus rate, despite mandatory testing and limited on-campus housing.

Here in San Diego, San Diego State University cases are not helping the county’s coronavirus count. This is contributing to an increasing case rate that has caused political tension this week among local leaders over whether to fight against the state over its tier system or even remove SDSU cases from the county case rate altogether.

That request to remove SDSU from the county's count got a big 'no' from Governor Gavin Newsom this week.

It’s not just SDSU either, CSU San Marcos has been slowly climbing in on-campus cases among its students as well as the University of San Diego, who is expecting more than 600 students to move in this weekend.

All of the colleges in San Diego right now are tacking on new cases of the virus, or just getting started in preparing for a move-in. Let’s get into it.

San Diego State introduces mandatory testing, drives up county case rate

SDSU has made it clear they have no plans to send students home any time soon, even as more than 700 students have now caught the virus in the last month. 

Despite previous statements against widespread testing at the beginning of the semester, SDSU officials announced Tuesday they were distributing mandatory testing to all its 2,600 residents as soon as possible.

Dr. J Luke Wood, vice president of student affairs at SDSU, said on Tuesday that it’s easy to play ‘Monday morning quarterback’ when looking at the track record of university coronavirus response. 

“The guidance has changed and thus our response has changed,” Dr. Wood said.

But the growing cases at San Diego State continued throughout the week. The cases have fluctuated anywhere from 17 to 53 students in one day of reporting.

San Diego County Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten, M.D., M.P.H. said on Tuesday that San Diego County would be better off in its case rate, and not be at risk of increasing in the state’s tiering system, if it wasn’t for the hundreds of students who tested positive for the virus.

This struck a tone for the day as County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar soon issued a plea to California Governor Gavin Newsom, asking the state to remove SDSU’s coronavirus count off of the county’s case count. 

But the coronavirus cases at SDSU are not exclusive to a bubble, during a San Diego County Coronavirus Task Force press briefing on Wednesday, Dr. Eric McDonald confirmed at least seven people who were not affiliated to SDSU were linked to SDSU student cases. 

Dr. McDonald also said in the same press conference that four community outbreaks are currently active around the College Area surrounding SDSU.

Private company Elite Security is still monitoring the College Area, according to SDSU officials. On a Tuesday press conference, Dr. Luke Wood said more than 500 violations have been issued to college community members who disobeyed health orders. Some, he said, is still under investigation.

Dr. Wood confirmed during the presser that some of the violations have led to suspensions. The violations, according to Dr. Wood in a previous press conference, can range from warnings all the way to expulsion.

As of the latest health update, no hospitalizations concerning students are active. The student who was reportedly hospitalized last week, could not be commented on. News 8 reached out to San Diego County regarding the condition of the student, but did not receive an update.

The current case count as of Friday morning is 749 confirmed or probable cases among students at SDSU, 513 were reported at the same time last week.

University of San Diego announces the ‘Torero Blueprint’ and move-in specifics

Earlier in September, USD laid out an extensive reopening plan called the Torero Blueprint. This detailed the protocol for students to be tested, living quarters and sanitization.

Lissette Martinez, the senior director of media relations at USD, wrote an email to News 8 to further explain the reopening specifics. 

Martinez said 630 students were going to move in. The USD website says move-in is from September 18 - 20, and that all students would be tested upon move-in.

Martinez added in the email saying the university expects tests to happen every two weeks for students. 

“All faculty and staff who will be coming to campus will also have the opportunity to be tested,” the email read, in part.

Fifty-five graduate nursing school students at USD were supposed to take the lead on taking care of contact tracing among the student population, but Martinez said that move will now be spearheaded by Student Wellness and Human Resources within the university.

Before SDSU made the move to waive housing cancellation fees (these prices would sometimes pass $10,000), students took to social media to complain about the charge.

USD said it would work with students to circumvent potential cancellation fees that come from canceling housing leases should a student leave during the pandemic.

“Of course our student affairs office will work on a case-by-case basis with students who have extenuating circumstances due to COVID-19,” the email read, in part.

Martinez said the USD Rules of Conduct have been updated in the event of any large gatherings or disobedience toward health order.

“A student’s documented failure to comply may result in a referral to the Office of Ethical Development and Restorative Practices,” the email read, in part.

According to the COVID-19 dashboard on USD’s website, six community members tested positive for the virus within this last week. They were five students living off-campus and one employee who works on campus.

UC San Diego and CSU San Marcos cases continue to climb

As UC San Diego anticipates 7,500 students moving to its campus as early as this weekend, the university is already logging a weekly summary of tests and positive cases among students, faculty and healthcare workers. 

From September 6 to September 12, UCSD reported 16 new cases among its campus community. Eight were from students, four were from employees and another four from healthcare workers at UCSD Health.

That makes less than a one percent positive rate out of 2,229 tests reported during that time.

UCSD says students and faculty will be tested every other week as on-campus operations continue.

There have been no reports of on or off-campus parties happening in anticipation of the big move-in, but UCSD remains ready for patrol, according to Erika Johnson, a media relations representative with the university. 

Johnson told News 8 last week that a full-time professional team member from the Office of Student Conduct will be patrolling the university community.

Six hundred beds are available for potential quarantine situations, both with or without symptoms, according to UCSD's coronavirus screening page for students.

CSU San Marcos also continues to log more and more cases, though, at a smaller rate than other universities given that there are only 250 students living on campus.

Compared to the combined 10,100 students that will inhabit both SDSU and UCSD, this population is small.

Despite the small population, CSUSM logged four more cases of the virus since last week, bringing its total to 10.

There was an addition of one positive case of a student living off-campus and two who live on-campus. 

No new employee cases were added for CSUSM. 

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