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How Wayne State University kept its COVID numbers extremely low

Wayne State University
Paulette Parker
Michigan Radio

Many college campuses have been sources of community spread of COVID-19 over the past year. Big schools like the University of Michigan and Michigan State University have at times struggled to curb spread and socialization among the student body. University of Michigan recently struggled with the first cases of the U.K. variant spreading through the state, and the school community currently represents about two-thirds of the total infections in Washtenaw County.

U of M has had more than 5,000 cases to date, with MSU not far behind that number.

Wayne State University, however, has had fewer than 500 cases, and only 60 cases popping up so far this year.

How did the largest university in the state’s biggest city manage to pull off those low numbers? We spoke with WSU President M. Roy Wilson, who explained the measures the school has taken that have led to significantly less spread.

Located in the heart of Detroit, Wayne State is not a big residential campus. Many students are commuter students, which means there are fewer people living in densely populated dorms. There’s also not a huge fraternity and sorority presence at the school, which has been a source of spread at schools like U of M.

Still, Wayne State’s location is noteworthy. In the beginning of the pandemic, Detroit was hit hard by early spread of COVID, and the community was knocked back by thousands of deaths.

This impacted students, says Wilson.

“If you lived in Detroit in let’s say February, March, and into April, there’s no way you could not know someone who had succumbed to COVID-19. Everyone knew at least one person and then most of us knew multiple people who did not do well,” Wilson says. “And so there’s no question that that very, very heavy burden of disease early on made people be much more careful, much more vigilant, had them more compliant with face masks and other public health measures than might have been the case in other areas of the state.”

Wilson says another key factor in Wayne State’s rather mild spread is the health committee the school formed near the beginning of the pandemic. The committee meets on a weekly basis to talk about next steps and focuses on keeping students and faculty safe.

Wilson says the school also made the decision to put health and safety ahead of financial concerns.

“We really haven’t thought about the financial impact of many of the things that we’ve done, if it was the right thing to do for safety reasons, we’ve done it,” Wilson said. “We’ll face the financial consequences of that later, we think that it’s really important to make sure that safety is our first consideration, whatever decisions we make.”

Surprisingly, the pandemic hasn’t been deleterious on enrollment numbers. According to Wilson, the Fall 2020 freshman class was actually the largest class the school has ever had.

While whispers of “normalcy” float across the country and state, Wilson says he’s still a bit reserved. Detroit is doing better in recent months, and the positive COVID rate is lower than the rest of the state, but the pandemic isn’t over.

“I disagree with some of the decisions being made across the country in terms of trying to get back to complete normality at this point in time. I think it’s the wrong thing to do,” Wilson said. “I think there’s a little bit more sacrifice that’s necessary in order to have a brighter future.”

This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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