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‘Irresponsible and dangerous’ behavior at UIUC could lead to end of in-person semester after COVID-19 spike, shool warns

More than 700 people on campus have tested positive for the virus since school started Aug. 24.

COVID-19 cases have spiked at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Sun-Times file photo

Students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign could be suspended for not following the school’s quarantine guidelines, officials said after the state’s flagship school saw a spike in COVID-19 cases since the semester began last week.

More than 700 people have tested positive at UIUC since the first day of classes Aug. 24, school officials said at a Wednesday press conference. If the current trends continue, the school will have double the number of COVID-19 cases every week, leading to as many as 8,000 cases over fall semester, officials said.

More than 95% of cases are among students, said Awais Vaid, an epidemiologist with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District (CUPHD).

School administration says parties and other large gatherings over the weekend are to blame for the high number of positive tests, as well as students disregarding guidance to self-isolate after testing positive or being exposed to someone who tests positive. Two students have been suspended, and 100 more are being investigated and could face school discipline.

The school emphasized Wednesday that students face “immediate suspension” if they don’t quarantine or isolate per university direction. People hosting parties will also be suspended immediately, too.

“The irresponsible and dangerous actions of a small number of our students has created a very real possibility of ending an in-person semester for all of us here,” said UIUC Chancellor Robert Jones. “There are poor choices that led to a very concerning and rapid increase in the number of new undergraduate COVID-19 positive cases.”

Most sororities and fraternities on campus have worked together with the school to tamp down on partying, said Danita Brown Young, vice chancellor for student affairs.

“The problem is we know there are parties that are occurring that we can’t see,” Brown Young said. “If we can’t see the violations visibly, there’s not a lot we can do.”

The school’s twice-weekly mandatory testing plan became a model for many other colleges and universities in anticipation of fall semester. Most people get their results within 24 hours, said Martin Burke, an associate dean of research at the university’s graduate medical school.

The university launched its Shield Team 30 in collaboration with the CUPHD Wednesday to identify and contact students who’ve tested positive for the virus more quickly. The team’s goal is to safely isolate people within 30 minutes of identifying a positive case, Burke said.

A UIUC Shield Team was in place in July, and the school saw its positivity rate drop below 0.2%, Burke said.

“This is why we felt rightly confident this would work,” Burke said. “What we didn’t anticipate is that students would willingly break the law.”

UIUC anticipated an initial surge in cases in the wake of students returning to campus from Aug. 16-24. Unlike university estimates, which expected COVID-19 cases to decline following move-in, the number of positive cases has remained high.

The school’s model for predicting the spread of the virus on campus did take into account students going to parties and not wearing masks, said Nigel Goldenfeld, a physics professor at UIUC. What the model didn’t predict was students’ noncompliance with self-quarantining after they’ve tested positive or been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Some students have “knowingly and willfully” avoided calls from CUPHD, Burke said.

Until Sept. 16, the school is directing all undergraduate students to leave their dorm rooms or apartments only to go to class or work, buy food, attend religious services, seek medical attention, do an individual outdoor activity or taking twice-weekly mandated COVID-19 tests. The school is also deploying more staff to monitor large gatherings and parties in dorms and off-campus housing.

UIUC senior Ali Mizra, a student member of the school’s Board of Trustees, said suspension poses a “credible threat” to students on campus.

“Some students have the misconception that we are going to go home, so you might as well make the best of the time you have here now,” Mizra said. “Making an example of some students will make everybody comply with the policies that we put in place.”