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State data: Over 280 COVID-19 cases in ongoing outbreak at U of M; 71 new outbreaks among K-12 schools

University of Michigan Central Campus sign
Michigan Radio
The University of Michigan's COVID-19 dashboard reports over 400 cases since mid-August.

Most colleges and universities are entering their third week in the new fall semester — with many trying to get back to a pre-pandemic normal.

In its weekly update, Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services has reported four new outbreaks among Michigan’s higher education institutions. Northwood University in Midland has the biggest new outbreak, with 25 connected cases.

The other colleges include Grand Valley State University, Central Michigan University and Alma College.

MDHHS is reporting five ongoing higher education outbreaks with over 300 cases. Ongoing outbreaks involve cases from the last 28 days. The colleges involved are Adrian College, two at Northern Michigan University (one among students and one among staff), and Eastern Michigan University. By far most of the cases, 283, come from the state's second most populous campus, University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

MDHHS defines an outbreak as “two (2) or more COVID-19 cases who may have shared exposure on school grounds and are from different households.” It does not include people “who were exposed to COVID-19 outside of school grounds and are not thought to have spread the disease on the school grounds.”

In general, the new outbreaks among all Michigan schools have increased from last week. But most of these outbreaks are coming from K-12 schools, with young people who may not have the chance to be vaccinated.

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

University of Michigan’s separate dashboard updated Monday evening shows that:

  • There have been 426 positive tests since Aug. 21, with most being from the past fourteen days.
  • Preliminary data shows the a positivity rate last week was 1.6% 
  • 22.6% of U of M's quarantine and isolation housing are occupied, a decrease from last week. There are 288 dedicated rooms in total. According to the University, some of these were taken early on by students who were not vaccinated and were quarantined before moving into the dorms. 
  • 94% of students and 81% of all employees self-report to be fully vaccinated. U of M started classes on August 30th, requiring masks indoors and vaccinations for students and staff. 

The University held its regular COVID-19 update on Friday. Dr. Emily Martin, a U of M epidemiologist, touched on the University’s trends.
She said there was “a big increase last week corresponding to this big influx of people added to campus and a kind of huge expansion in the size of our community. So that wasn't unexpected. We're continuing to monitor, what we want to see now is if that stays steady or if that continues to go up. So far, the numbers are staying steady with last week.”

Martin says the University’s test positivity rate is still below its high point last winter.

And football season is back, leaving some to wonder why the University of Michigan's mask mandate does not extend to the Big House. Michigan Football reports over 100,000 people attended the first home game.

University President Mark Schlissel addressed the question during the Friday update, saying a balance was taken into account. Schlissel also added there is masking in Big House restrooms and other indoor areas.

“Our students and faculty and staff that I feel most responsible for are very highly vaccinated. We know outdoor events to be much safer than indoor events. But we are recommending people if you're concerned about risk, wear a mask at the Big House,” he said.

The state's Chief Medical Executive, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, through an MDHHS spokesperson, recommends Michiganders follow CDC guidelines. The CDC states in areas with high numbers of COVID-19 cases, “unvaccinated and fully vaccinated individuals should consider wearing a mask in crowded outdoor settings and for activities with close contact with others who are not fully vaccinated.”

Washtenaw County is still marked as a “high-transmission” area by the CDC.

During the Friday update, Provost Susan Collins said the cases are a small fraction of the student body and they are “not seeing transmission in our classrooms.” This is helped by masking indoors and level of vaccination, she said.

Dr. Robert Ernst said cases this year, so far, appear to be mildly symptomatic. He said the vaccination rates will likely make transmission rates lower.

Martin also points out it's not uncommon to see other respiratory viruses during the fall, and “there’s a lot of pent up potential for these respiratory viruses because some of them have been kind of in hibernation for a little while, while we've all been not interacting at the same level.”

Michigan State University 

Michigan State University recently launched its COVID-19 tracker late last week. According to the dashboard page updated Monday evening:

  • The “university is aware of 242 cases of COVID-19 among students and 64 cases among faculty and staff since the week of Aug. 2.” 
  • The week starting Sept 6th there were 122 cases — all found through MSU’s Early Detective program, which tests unvaccinated individuals and other volunteers.
  • The week starting Sept. 6th, so far, has a positivity test rate of 3.24%. 
  • 90 students on campus are in quarantine and isolation. 

Michigan State University is not included in MDHHS’s outbreak data. A representative from the Ingham County Health Department said at “this time we do not have an on-campus outbreak that we are aware of.”
91.6% of MSU students, staff and faculty are vaccinated. The data is not broken down by groups.

MSU spokesperson Dan Olsen said the University will be working on future reports with Ingham County Health Department to find cases that may be out of the school’s awareness.

"I think it's important to remember too, that our early preventative measures that we've put in place — the vaccination requirements, the indoor mask requirement for all individuals at the university — those were important measures for us to take to mitigate the transmission," Olsen said. "And while that's not 100% preventable, we are going to see cases within our classrooms and other academic settings, we knew that those two measures together would severely limit the number of cases that we would see in the classrooms, which is consistent with what we have been seeing."

But some students are anxious about getting back in the classroom. Like MSU junior Laila Galarsa, who only knows a few months of college that was not impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Galarsa said one of her requirements is in a tiny room, packed with 50 students next to each other. Despite being warned this could happen, she said she has been nervous lately — for the MSU community but also for young people outside of the campus, like a professor's child at home.

She said some classes have been strict about in-person attendance, meaning there is little incentive to stay home when you are sick or exposed. She also has seen some people not masking up or coughing without a mask — something hard to speak up about when you are just another student.

Galarsa said she wants to see transparency with numbers, especially with off-campus cases and testing.

“I just want things to go back to normal more than anyone, but we can't pretend it's gonna go back to normal by just trying to make that exist. That's not how it happens,” Galarsa said.

This post was last updated on Sept. 16 at 2:45 p.m. to reflect new schools added by MDHHS after the Monday update.

The University of Michigan holds Michigan Radio's license. 

Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.
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