MOIBLE, Ala. (WALA) – Dozens of college students in Mobile have contracted the novel coronavirus since the call term began, but administrators say they have taken steps to prevent those cases from becoming outbreaks.
A key to that goal in any setting is quarantining. When most people get sick or come into contact with infected people, they can just stay home. For many college students, though, the campus is home.
Dorm life is not exactly conducive to quarantining, so administrators at the University of South Alabama, Spring Hill College and the University of South Alabama have carved out space in dorm buildings specifically for COVID-19 students.
Students checking into those units will remain isolated from the rest of campus. The University of South Alabama has modified buildings with exterior access and no doors leading to non-COVID areas inside. Julie Estis, the school’s COVID-19 response coordinator, told FOX10 News that asymptomatic students in isolation can keep up with their studies online.
“There are different protocols for students who test positive and then those who are close contacts. But the students who test positive go into a period of isolation, depending on their case, and meals are provided to them during that time period,” she said. “If they’re in one of those special quarantine rooms. For students who are close contacts, those students are also set aside in either in their own room if it’s a private room, or in one of the special quarantine areas.”
So far, so good. South has reported 104 positive COVID-19 tests since Aug. 8. That includes six employees. Estis said the school over the last week increased the isolation capacity further, which means that even though the number of students living in them has remained roughly the same, it has driven down occupancy to about 10 percent.
College re-openings have drawn a great deal of scrutiny across the country. Some universities have chosen to go online exclusively for the fall semester, and spikes in positive tests have raised eyebrows at the University of Alabama and Auburn University.
But Scott Chavers, an epidemiologist at the Mobile County Health Department, noted that only about 0.5 percent of University of South Alabama students participating in the GuideSafe program tested positive.
“They have a very low percentage of positive cases,” he said.
Kevin Abel, vice president for student affairs at Spring Hill College, said it is a similar story there. Twelve of 1,100 students tested positive through the GuideSafe program prior to the start of classes. Eight have tested positive since Aug. 17, and another eight currently are isolating after close contact with infected people.
Abel said the Jesuit university has the capacity to house 6 percent to 7 percent of its student body in COVID-19 rooms, if necessary.
College-age people have been at low risk of death from COVID-19. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that people younger than 25 account for just 0.2 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in the United States.
Still, young people can have major problems with the illness. And more importantly, students can pass the disease to more vulnerable faculty and staff.
Abel said that in the next couple of weeks, Spring Hill College will roll out a “sentinel” testing program that will randomly test 4 percent of students and employees each week.
All three colleges are requiring masks in public spaces, in line with recommendations from the CDC and Gov. Kay Ivey’s “Safer at Home” order.
Abel pointed to other efforts to limit infections. Classrooms and common spaces have been reconfigured to keep people apart. And the college increased the percentage of students with private rooms from less than 20 percent last year to about 70 percent. Those who do not share bathrooms can isolate in their own rooms without having to move to a quarantine unit.
“It took a lot of work this summer – I think a lot of rearranging,” he said. “Our residence life team did a tremendous job of being able to make those puzzle pieces fit and being able to utilize some spaces that we have not utilized in the past. So, I think it was really a team effort of saying this is something we believe we can do.”
Officials at the University of Mobile, meanwhile, reported that three students are isolating after testing positive, and 12 more are quarantining because they had close contact with people who have confirmed cases.