Since students returned to campus in late August, the number of positive COVID-19 cases associated with University of Michigan students has increased then decreased.
The number of COVID-19 cases increased from 73 on the week of Aug. 22 to 195 the week of Aug. 29, the first day of classes.
Preliminary data from the two weeks since then shows numbers have remained high at 156 the week of Sep. 5, then dropping to 82 for the week of Sep. 12.
Since class began, positivity rates have remained under 2%.
In an email to the University community on Friday, President Mark Schlissel wrote that per the dashboard, “case numbers and our quarantine housing usage have flattened.”
In an email to The Michigan Daily last Thursday, Dr. Robert Ernst, associate vice president of student life for health and wellness and the director of COVID-19 Campus Health Response, wrote he believes the University’s mitigation strategies such as masking and vaccination reduce the risk of transmission on campus, even with the more contagious delta variant.
“Given the repopulation of campus and many associated large social gatherings where masking is not universal, the finding of covid transmission among students early in the fall semester is not surprising,” Ernst wrote. “Peer institutions like ours have seen similar early increases, and campuses like ours that started earlier have seen these early increases followed by a gradual decline.”
In the past few weeks, doctors across the state have reported seeing a gradual increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in hospitals. According to Jakob McSparron, associate director of the critical care medicine unit at Michigan Medicine, the number of cases per week in the past month has risen from 25, to 35, to 45 as the delta variant has spread.
“The rise is a little bit slower compared to the previous surges we used to see,” McSparron said. “This time it’s more of a steady increase in our numbers.”
Hallie Prescott, a pulmonary care physician at Michigan Medicine, said in an email she believes these rising trends should be of concern to students.
“It is certainly worth noting that COVID is circulating in our community, and therefore (it is) important to take extra precautions such as wearing a mask while in public indoor spaces,” Prescott said. “Even if one’s personal risk of hospitalization/death from COVID is low, these extra measures are important to keep case counts low and protect our community as a whole.”
According to McSparron, the majority of patients in the intensive care unit at Michigan Medicine are unvaccinated. The few that are vaccinated have underlying conditions putting them at risk, he said.
McSparron said he believes things could start to look more normal if vaccination rates increased.
“Unfortunately, I think we are seeing more young patients this time around in terms of the unvaccinated,” McSparron said. “It’s very hard to see a 20-year-old on a breathing machine knowing that so much of this was preventable.”
LSA sophomore Lana King said she first started to notice the uptick when she received multiple “COVID-classroom” notifications, which have since been discontinued.
“I personally don’t feel too scared because we’re all wearing masks and especially in class, you’re not getting that close to people,” King said.
When asked if the recent trends in COVID-19 cases on campus should be concerning to students, Ernst said it’s too soon to predict further developments this fall.
“There has not been evidence of transmission within residence halls and fortunately, as we would expect in a highly vaccinated population, most affected individuals experience only mild symptoms,” Ernst said.
Ernst said the University is in a very different position compared to the last academic year, when Washtenaw County had to use stay-in-place orders and recommendations to curb the spread of the virus.
“This year, even with far more students on campus, much greater occupancy in the residence halls and significantly more social interaction at large gatherings, most cases we have seen have been isolated and not associated with further spread,” Ernst said.
Beyond campus, cases in Washtenaw County are increasing as well. The increase in cases in the county puts strain on the hospitals, leaving medical professionals working long hours and buildings understaffed, McSparron said.
“It’s definitely a very stressful time in the hospital,” McSparron said. “The sheer volume and complexity of our patients right now are something we have never seen before. I think the staff and people at the bedside are just really tired.”
King said students who have jobs in Washtenaw County should take greater precautions to keep residents safe, as they have more contact with the outside community.
“I definitely think it’s the responsible thing to do to be cautious,” King said. “Especially when there’s such a large population living right outside campus.”
Ernst said despite rising cases, the University’s COVID-19 policies have overall been successful, resulting in a highly vaccinated population and limited spread of the virus from students to the larger community.
“Most (student) cases are associated with mild illness, and like prior semesters, there has not been evidence that infections among students have spread to the broader Washtenaw County community,” Ernst wrote.
Though most students are vaccinated, Prescott said many doctors are still having a hard time speculating what the future of COVID-19 will be. Prescott said she anticipates the need for periodic vaccinations for COVID-19, similar to the flu vaccinations.
“It is increasingly clear that there will not be a ‘post-COVID’ world,” Prescott said. “Rather, we will need to continue to learn how to best live with COVID. Hopefully, as vaccination rates continue to rise, outbreaks will be less common and less severe. However, COVID is unlikely to be eradicated and there will continue to be new variants over time, some of which may be less well covered by existing vaccines.”
Ernst said it is possible for the virus to become endemic, or regularly present in the general population.
“The expectation is that the virus may continue to evolve and because of that (and significant pockets of vaccine hesitancy) it already appears that the virus may become endemic,” Ernst wrote.
One of the outcomes of “learning to live with COVID” may include mask requirements at large outdoor gatherings, including football games and University-hosted events, Prescott said. The University does not currently require masks in outdoor areas of Michigan Stadium, causing concern among some Ann Arbor residents.
“If requiring masks is the decision that they make, then that’s just what will happen,” King, the LSA sophomore, said. “I wouldn’t really be able to have an opinion in that case.”
Daily Staff Reporter Ashna Mehra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.