Washtenaw County COVID-19 cases exceed U-M threshold for reevaluation of campus operations

Friday, October 2, 2020 - 11:31pm

The University announced criteria that would lead to reevaluating campus operations on Wednesday.

The University announced criteria that would lead to reevaluating campus operations on Wednesday. Buy this photo
Maddie Hinkley/Daily

Update: According to an Oct. 5 notice posted to the University’s COVID-19 dashboard, the response metric for exceeding five days of increases in new infections using a seven-day average has also been met. This means two of the University’s thresholds for reevaluating campus operations have now been triggered.

One of the University of Michigan’s metrics for reevaluating campus operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been triggered, University President Mark Schlissel confirmed coming two days after the guidelines were published online. 

Schlissel acknowledged the trigger in a Friday email to faculty members concerned about the spread of the virus in the surrounding community.

“Yes, the metrics were triggered, and as per the new policy, our public health and medical advisors are discussing, based on the details of the cases and overall context, which next steps are most appropriate,” Schlissel wrote in the email obtained by The Michigan Daily. “As we stated, there are many options for interventions that must be tailored to the exact circumstances. (sic) involved.”

On the University’s Campus Blueprint website, the criteria include Washtenaw County seeing more than 70 new cases per million, sustained test positivity rates of 10% or three consecutive days of a more than 10% case increase. 

When bringing their concerns to Schlissel, the faculty members noted the metric regarding more than 70 new cases per million in the county had been met. 

According to data published on MI Safe Start Map, daily new cases per million were above 70 in Washtenaw County numerous times at the end of September. 

The University posted the metrics online Wednesday. Schlissel had previously declined to name a specific threshold such as a certain number of cases that would require the campus to close again.

Information Professor Kentaro Toyama, who has been vocal in his criticism of Schlissel, wrote in his email to the president that the metrics were not stringent enough.

“Many of us believe, incidentally, that these response metrics are lenient -- they are weaker than the standards at other universities,” Toyama wrote. “The language on the website calls these ‘situations that might provoke changes in our campus plans,’ which unfortunately commits to no action, and is logically equivalent to this summer's propaganda.”

When a threshold is breached, the University begins a review of campus operations to consider what response is needed.

In an email to The Daily Friday night, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said Schlissel was in discussions with public health experts and advisers about the next steps.

“He was confirming what had been noted in the email, that in Washtenaw County there are more than 70 new cases per million,” Fitzgerald wrote. “As he indicated, the Campus Health Response Committee is carefully considering the situation. It is important to note that, as the president said, ‘there are many options for interventions that must be tailored to the exact circumstances.’”

Other triggers include an inability to conduct prompt case investigation and contact tracing or limited bed capacity or personal protective equipment at Michigan Medicine. Additional metrics are five days of test positivity rates above 20% from on and off-campus testing or five days of sustained increases in infections among students, staff or faculty, which would be determined in coordination with the Washtenaw County Health Department.

Possible mitigation strategies range from restricting travel on-campus students to pausing in-person classes for two weeks or even pivoting to fully online classes for the remainder of the semester. More extreme options could include a shelter-in-place order issued in coordination with local public health officials or closing residence halls. However, the guidelines note that the latter measure “must be evaluated and undertaken with care due to the risk of seeding infections from the student population into other communities.” 

Public health experts have also noted the potential danger of sending students back home from a campus that has become a COVID-19 hotspot.

On Tuesday, University Housing identified clusters of COVID-19 cases at Mosher-Jordan Residence Hall and Alice Lloyd Residence Hall. Earlier in September, a cluster was reported at South Quad Residence Hall.

At the start of the pandemic last spring, students in dorms faced uncertainty about whether or not they would be forced to return home or if they could stay on campus. The University eventually offered a $1,200 refund to students who left the residence halls. 

In an interview with The Daily Thursday, Schlissel said he does not anticipate needing to send students home in the near future. 

I very much doubt that the pandemic will get bad enough that we literally have to send everybody home,” Schlissel said. “I think there’s a long way between sending everybody home and where we are now where we can scale back prudently, and really truly limit things to things that can only happen face-to-face.”

In a video posted with the criteria on Wednesday, Preeti Malani, chief health officer at the University, said the metrics were based on those currently in use at the state and local level, as well as national guidelines.

“There is no one single number or single piece of information that will prompt an immediate change,” Malani said. “... These response metrics are meant to prompt a broader review by public health and medical experts.”

According to the University’s COVID-19 dashboard, there have been 555 cases on campus since Aug. 30, the day before fall classes started. As of Friday night, 2,571 tests have been conducted this week, with a 1.5% positivity rate.

In a press release Friday, Jimena Loveluck, health officer for Washtenaw County, noted that young people accounted for the majority of cases.

“We are currently seeing a sharp increase in cases among local, college-age individuals,” Loveluck said in a statement. “We know social gatherings without precautions are a primary source of exposure. We can prevent additional spread by keeping all gatherings small, using face coverings and distance, and fully cooperating with case investigators and contact tracers.”

County data showed a “significant increase” in the proportion of cases among people between 18 and 22 years old, who made up 78% of reported cases from Sept. 17 to Sept. 30.

Aspects of the University’s reopening plan have been met with pushback from public health professionals. Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist and professor at Harvard Medical School, called Schlissel’s approach one of “false reassurance,” referencing the lack of widespread testing.

Schlissel also acknowledged the increases in cases over recent weeks on Thursday.

“I am very concerned,” Schlissel said. “I think we’re holding our own, but things are not heading in the right direction now.”

Daily Staff Reporter Dominick Sokotoff contributed reporting.

Managing News Editors Leah Graham and Sayali Amin can be reached at leahgra@umich.edu and sayalia@umich.edu


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