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Growing COVID-19 outbreaks at MSU, Western Michigan, and U of M

While COVID cases have been increasing in dorms, the University says the biggest increases are coming from group housing off-campus.
Katie Raymond

Forty-six Michigan pre-K-12 schools are now reporting COVID-19 outbreaks, according to data released Monday by the state health department. That brings the count to 199 students and staff, although that’s likely a significant undercount: only cases that local health departments can confirm had “shared exposure on school grounds and are from different households” are included in the state’s weekly data updates. 


Even with those limitations, cases continue to surge most dramatically at colleges and universities: 24 higher education institutions have outbreaks, with 3,826 cases among students and staff reported. 


With 1,295 COVID cases among students, Michigan State University has the largest reported outbreak of any school in the state. That’s a drastic increase from 533 outbreak-related cases reported this time last week at MSU. 


But that’s not because some 700 additional MSU students suddenly got sick in the last week, says Ingham County Health Director Linda Vail. Rather, the logistics of figuring out which cases are, and aren’t, MSU students, takes time. 


“It was a massive, massive data project,” Vail said Monday. “We’re basically looking at addresses and age range and saying ‘Hmm, looks like probably an MSU student,’ and then trying to verify it. Once we got through it all, probably 500 cases got added as a result of that alone.” 


Western Michigan University also saw a massive uptick, going from just 29 outbreak-related cases last week, to 452 cases reported on Monday. Requests for comment weren’t immediately returned by WMU or the Kalamazoo Health and County Services Department, but new cases there have been climbing in recent weeks, according to the school’s online COVID dashboard.


Meanwhile, cases at the University of Michigan are also steadily rising. Two weeks ago, there were 77 U of M outbreak-related cases, according to data published by the state. Last week, there were 151. According to the numbers released Monday, the outbreak-related case count stood at 295. 


“We’re having lots and lots of discussions with the University,” says Susan Ringler Cerniglia, Public Information Officer for the Washtenaw County Health Department. 63% of the county’s 316 new cases have been between the ages of 18-22, according to the county’s website.


It’s hard to say what, exactly, is behind the rapid rise in U of M cases, Cerniglia says. Maybe this was to be expected, with students coming in from other areas, and because U of M started later than places like Grand Valley State University, it took until now for case numbers to start to rise so precipitously. 


“Behavior-wise, maybe people were doing a little bit better [than at other universities,]” Cerniglia says. “But one of the factors seems to be timing. And I don’t think there’s been a significant change in the availability of testing [that could account for the rise in positive test results alone.]”

Many of the cases are being traced to off-campus group housing, according to both the health department and U of M. Cernigilia says one option that’s being discussed is whether to issue a mandatory quarantine order for large houses that have high case numbers, as Ingham County did with 39 MSU student houses. 


“If it truly looks like the majority of cases are affiliated with large, off-campus congregate-setting houses, then the next question is, are the orders [from case investigators who reach out to these students] being followed? Are people able to isolate and quarantine as appropriate? ...Certainly, generally, we’ve struggled a little more with compliance and the contact tracing process with younger students,” Cerniglia says. “But it’s not clear if, in these houses where there are cases, is everyone following isolation and quarantine [directions] as instructed.”  


Asked if there’s any indication that campus-related cases have led to broader community spread, Cerniglia says it’s too soon to know. 


“If folks are not following quarantine properly, we don’t want them going to off-campus jobs, right? If we are still following the procedures and containing the spread and stopping it [that’s one thing.] But if that’s not happening, then we have a very different situation.” 


As of Monday afternoon, the U of M’s COVID dashboard lists a significant jump in the percentage of positive test results, from 1.7% last week to 14.3% now. 


“The current positivity rate reflects a low number of tests (less than 10 so far this week),” spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said in an email. “There are several hundred tests pending and the rate will change as those results come in.”


Asked if U of M would support a mandatory quarantine order for any houses that may be associated with larger outbreaks, Fitzgerald responded:

“U [of] M and the Washtenaw County Health Department are in constant communications...The university has isolation/quarantine housing available to students living on campus or off campus and the university expects student residents of any house that has positive cases or close contact exposures to isolate or quarantine and take the proper measures to prevent further spread of COVID-19.”


Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
Brad Gowland joined Michigan Radio in 2019 to help with the station's growing digital side, specializing in data collection and digital audio.
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