Michigan’s higher education institutions are together reporting 4,921 cases associated with ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks, according to the latest outbreak data published by the state health department on Monday.
That dwarfs the 346 cases reported from pre K-12 schools, indicating both the speed at which outbreaks have spread on campus, as well as the amount of testing happening at colleges and universities.
Michigan State University continues to have the most active cases, with 1,531 total cases (outbreaks are considered active or “ongoing” when there’s been at least 1 new case within the last 28 days, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services). Grand Valley State University is reporting 903, and Western Michigan University has 655.
But there may be reason for some early, cautious optimism in those numbers: new cases at all three schools appear to be on the decline, raising hope the curves in these communities are beginning to flatten.
“Yes, the Western [Michigan University] numbers have increased,” says Mary Fraks, epidemiologist for Kalamazoo County’s Health and Community Services Department. “However, we're seeing a decreasing trend in Western cases. And the county as a whole has seen an increase, but we're starting to see that level out. So that's good news.”
WMU is seeing an average of 20 new cases a day, compared to a high in mid-September of 29 new daily cases based on a rolling, seven-day average. That’s according to the school’s online reporting dashboard.
And new cases have dropped precipitously at GVSU and MSU as well, which signifies to Ingham County Health Department officer Linda Vail that the measures they took to stop the recent surge in cases may be working.
“We do now see this trend coming down, which would indicate cases should be going down,” Vail said at an October 6 press conference. “So a combination of probably some lack of testing, as well as just plain old hard work getting cases down, have brought this really huge surge in cases down fairly rapidly.”
College towns have also been bracing themselves for a ripple effect: the question wasn’t whether these campus outbreaks would mean a rise in cases in the surrounding community, but just how big it would be.
Franks, the Kalamazoo County epidemiologist, says so far, it looks like the WMU outbreaks are staying fairly contained. Hospitalizations in the county remain low, and the majority of deaths continue to be among those in long-term residential living communities.
“We're really seeing that most of the Western cases are kind of confined to the Western population,” Franks says. “So we're not seeing that this spread from Western students is affecting the community at large. We're not negating the fact that these students work, live and play here. You know, they go to restaurants, they work at restaurants…[and] work at other employers.
“However, we're seeing that typically the Western cases are a result of exposure from some type of social engagement that's Western-related. And we've seen that employers in the county have done a really fantastic job of mitigating risk within their place of employment.”
Still, one challenge multiple health officials say they’re having with college communities, is a small minority of students who aren’t cooperating with contact tracing or are potentially trying to avoid the consequences of a positive test result.
“For example, if they test positive, their [student] badge, when they scan in and out of places [on campus], reflects that,” Franks says. “And they're not supposed to have access to certain things when they're in isolation. And we've had students try to circumvent that by getting tested off campus. I don't think that they realize the health department gets that positive result anyway. However, if they don't identify as a student, then it's really hard for us to work with them and make sure that they're isolating and, you know, doing that disease investigation to identify close contacts.”
Also on Monday, another 26 schools joined the list of those with new COVID-19 outbreaks, representing 116 COVID cases: 50 of which are at colleges or universities, and 66 of which are at K-12 schools.
Overall, the largest new outbreak is at Kalamazoo College, with 21 active cases. Among pre K-12 schools, Father Gabriel Richard High School has the largest new outbreak with 12 cases.