Days after students returned to UND’s campus, coronavirus cases are spiking in Grand Forks County, particularly among younger adults.
The county reported 110 new positive cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, Aug. 25, and is now leading the state with 383 active cases. Of those active cases, 223 are among 20 to 29 year olds and 110 are among 15 to 19 year olds.
Michael Dulitz, an opioid response project coordinator at Grand Forks Public Health who has become something of a COVID data guru as the virus has climbed toward a second peak this summer, said upwards of about 75% of the recent spate of new cases are the result of UND students returning to campus.
A person who’s contracted COVID-19 is most likely to develop symptoms five to seven days after they’re exposed to it, Dulitz said. UND’s official move-in day was Saturday, but students started moving back to campus about a week before that.
“And now we’re seeing the increase in cases,” Dulitz said.
As of 3 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 25, UND reported that 237 faculty, staff or students have tested positive for COVID-19 within the past two weeks -- but that isn’t necessarily an accurate measure of the virus’ spread at the university because students or employees counted in that figure may not live in or near Grand Forks County.
Meloney Linder, vice president of marketing and communications, said it’s difficult to track on-campus numbers because a student could have tested positive in another community before arriving on campus, but self-reported that positive test and is isolating back home. Someone also could have tested positive on campus but decided to return home to isolate.
UND President Andrew Armacost said “it’s no surprise” that cases would increase as more people come to Grand Forks and UND from regions, such as the Upper Midwest, where cases are on the rise.
“When you bring 10,000 people to town and test as aggressively as we have been, I don't think it's any surprise that we will find positive cases,” he said. “When you increase the population by 10,000 in the county that group can certainly impact the overall county numbers as well, which is what we're seeing.”
Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski said the spike is cause for concern but was, nonetheless, anticipated.
"You bring youths together that have already been known to be spreaders and you bring them together the first week of college," Bochenski told the Herald. "We expected this. We need to keep doing what we’re doing. I don’t think this is an example that what we’re doing isn’t working. This is an example of we’re slowing the spread and keeping our vulnerable population safe.”
Bochenski said hospitalizations and COVID figures among people 60 and older are his two most important data points. According to a Tuesday report by city health department staff, Altru Health System's capacity is at "moderate risk" because there are fewer available beds at the hospital than normal, but staff there haven't had to add additional ones. And the North Dakota Department of Health reported that there were nine active coronavirus cases in Grand Forks County who were 60 or older.
While they’re on campus, UND students are asked to wear masks when indoors and when they are unable to physically distance outside. Additionally, students are asked to sanitize items when possible and wash their hands regularly. But there are no such restrictions when they head off campus.
Don Warne, the associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at the university’s school of medicine and health sciences who directs its Indians Into Medicine program, told the Herald last month that physical distancing and wearing masks on campus is still worth it even if students don’t observe the same sort of caution when they’re on their own time.
“It’s not nearly as good as having a more universal approach,” Warne, whose bona fides include a master's degree in public health from Harvard University and a medical degree from Stanford University, said. “But it’s better than nothing.”
Since Wednesday, Aug. 19, more than 3,000 UND campus members have been tested, including 2,635 students, 289 staff members and 121 faculty members. Students were not required to get tested prior to arriving on campus, nor once they arrived on campus.
Armacost acknowledged that UND’s rates are higher than other colleges, but said he thinks “it’s consistent with what” the university experienced over the summer when smaller groups returned to campus. He said, this summer when the institution implemented its quarantine and isolation protocols, cases started to taper off after the initial wave of positive cases.
“So that’s what we expect here,” he said, adding it will take everyone abiding by COVID-19 protocols to make that possible.
The university has contracts with local hotels for quarantine and isolation rooms for students, faculty and staff. As of 3:30 p.m., there are 61 individuals in hotel quarantine and 82 individuals in hotel isolation. Quarantine refers to close contacts of positive cases and isolation refers to those who have tested positive.
Tiffany Boespflug, a registered nurse and health promotion team leader at the city health department, said staff there have been addressing the recent rise in countywide coronavirus metrics the same way they’ve been addressing the virus generally: with contact tracing and testing. That means they track down people who’ve been in close contact with someone who has recently tested positive, then recommend that those close contacts get tested, as well.
The positive case and the people they’ve been in contact with are all asked to stay home, too.