COVID cases continuing to climb among symptomatic students


On Sept. 11, Pitt reported 35 more students had tested positive for COVID-19 since its last update on Sept. 8, after 36 students tested positive between Sept. 4 and 8. 

The new cases — all but one from students who sought testing after experiencing symptoms of the virus — put the total at 163 since Aug. 1 when students began returning to the Oakland area. Of those, 93 remain in isolation, according to the COVID-19 Dashboard. The five-day moving average of positive tests per day dropped slightly from 10 to 9.8 in the past three days.

"The biggest chunk of positive cases that we’re seeing right now is related to unmasked activity and symptomatic students living off campus," said John Williams, head of the COVID-19 Medical Response Office.

Pitt is now requiring that students, staff and faculty wear face masks anytime they are in public in Pitt buildings and or outdoors on campus, with very few exceptions.

“The single most effective thing we can all do to protect our community is wear our face coverings properly and consistently,” Williams said.

The Medical Response Office said on Sept. 8 that although the increase over the previous four days “is not exponential, that does not mean we’re in the clear. On the contrary. This is a critical juncture. This is our moment to flatten the curve.”

Students who traveled anywhere for the Labor Day weekend, need to shelter in place for 14 days upon returning to campus, the medical team said. In today's email from the Medical Response Office, students were urged to avoid large gatherings with food and drink while watching the Panthers first football game of the season on Sept. 12.

The email also backed up Provost Ann Cudd's messages this week that some more in-person classes could begin next week. "From a medical perspective, Pitt has taken proper actions to make classrooms as safe as possible for in-person instruction," the email said. "Neither the classes that are already occurring in-person nor the research laboratories that have been operating since June have been identified as a significant source of transmission."

In an earlier communication, the COVID-19 Medical Response Office said 80 percent of the cases are among students living off campus. Of the 78 students who were in isolation as of Sept. 8, the University said 29 percent were in Pitt’s isolation housing. The others were either at their Oakland-area homes or their permanent residences. Pitt has 179 isolation beds available, with the ability to add 20 more.

A Sept. 6 video from Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner urged students to wear face masks, keep socially distanced particularly around people not in their pod, and to go to Student Health if they don’t feel well and get tested if necessary.

Bonner reiterated his advice that any students living off-campus who test positive should move to the University’s isolation housing, to avoid spreading the disease to their housemates. Students in isolation housing receive meal delivery, daily medical check-ins, and a large care package of snacks, Pitt gear, and necessities, Bonner said.

“The doctors and nurses that we have do not share your health information with the Office of Student Conduct,” Bonner said. “They do not share your information with me. We are more concerned with your health and wellbeing than we are about kicking any student out of Pitt.”

The Medical Response Office also urged students to cooperate with University contact tracers. “By sharing the names of your close contacts with a contact tracer, you’re actually helping to protect your friends and loved ones who may also be at risk of falling ill from the virus,” the email said.

There were no new cases reported among faculty and staff. There have been 11 cases since Aug. 1 and two remain in isolation.

Surveillance testing is being conducted on 200 to 250 students each week on Mondays and Wednesdays on the Oakland campus, and new reports on the number of cases will be released on Tuesdays and Fridays. Monthly surveillance testing at the regional campus will start in a couple weeks — Sept. 22 at Greensburg; Sept. 24 at Johnstown; and Sept. 29 at Bradford. Only one positive case has reported on the regional campuses.

Last week, Deborah Birx of the White House Coronavirus Task Force said Washington wants all college students tested in the next few weeks.

Pitt officials said the University continues “to constantly evaluate our testing program to ensure that it takes into account various factors and is best suited for Pitt. Our approach to testing aligns with recommendations by both the CDC and the American Collegiate Health Association. A high percentage of false negative results — and any negative test — may provide a false sense of safety. In addition, mass testing of asymptomatic young adults places undue stress on an already compromised national testing capacity.”

Colleges nationwide face tough decisions

On Sept. 1, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on NBC’s “Today” show that colleges experiencing spikes in coronavirus cases shouldn’t send students home.

“It’s the worst thing you could do,” Fauci said. “When you send them home, particularly when you’re dealing with a university where people come from multiple different locations, you could be seeding the different places with infection.”

Many schools, such as UNC­–Chapel Hill and Notre Dame have suspended or delayed in-person classes, with UNC asking students to cancel their housing contracts.

Other institutions, like the University of Alabama and the University of Iowa, have allowed students to remain on campus and continued to offer some in-person instruction despite more than 1,000 cases at each school.

On Sept. 7, West Virginia University announced all undergraduate courses in Morgantown — with the exception of those Health Sciences courses with students already engaged in clinical rotation — will move online starting Sept. 9 through at least Sept. 25. WVU said the move was made because of an increase in cases among student and the probability of more cases following several reports of parties held this holiday weekend.

At Temple University in Philadelphia, cases rose from 50 on Aug. 28 to more than 200 on Sept. 2. After pausing in-person classes for two weeks on Aug. 31, Temple officials on Sept. 3 said 95 percent of classes will now be conducted remotely for the rest of the semester.

The Post-Gazette reported on Sept. 4 that Penn State plans to weigh a temporary or sustained switch to remote learning this fall after a near tripling of COVID-19 cases last week to 215, nearly all of them on the main University Park campus.

And in a sign of what universities will have to contend with next year, California State University, one of America’s largest public-university systems, on Sept. 10 announced it will conduct instruction mostly online again in the spring semester.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.


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