State health officials are keeping a close eye on Newark as the return of University of Delaware students has caused the city’s coronavirus infections to spike.
The city is one of several “areas of concern” identified by Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Delaware Division of Public Health, on Tuesday. Other areas include parts of Bear/Glasgow, New Castle, Wilmington and Dover.
As of Wednesday afternoon, there have been a total of 74 cases among students and staff members who have been on campus since Aug. 31. Another 57 tested positive before coming to campus and were told to stay home.
After controlling an initial outbreak in March tied to a UD professor who visited New Jersey, Newark saw a lower rate of infection than many other areas of Delaware throughout the spring and summer. By mid-August, the average number of new cases per day here was less than one. Now, thanks to the recent spike at UD, the average number of daily new cases is 5.4.
Since the pandemic began, the city has seen 273 people test positive. There have been 11 coronavirus-related deaths in Newark, mostly tied to nursing homes, and none since May.
City officials have long feared that the return of UD students would cause an increase in coronavirus cases, prompting city council to pass strict limits on private gatherings last month.
Gov. John Carney said most of the recent cases in Newark can be tied back to “unstructured, out-of-classroom, off-campus activities,” such as house parties.
“People get together, alcohol is involved, people are having a lot of fun. They don’t want to think about necessarily wearing a mask and keeping social distanced – in fact, just the opposite,” Carney said. “We know the focus of these outbreaks is in a young adult demographic not so worried about coming down with COVID-19 or the risk they pose in the community if they do, and having a sense of invincibility.”
Rattay said DPH has not found a single point of exposure, such as one big party that sickened numerous students, though she noted some cases are tied to group living situations or sports teams.
Complicating efforts is UD students’ reluctance to cooperate with contact tracers from DPH. Rattay noted that contact tracing is done by state health workers, not UD officials, and emphasized that students who test positive should not fear getting in trouble if they report who they were in contact with.
“This information is critically important for the work we’re doing, and we’re having a tough time getting responses from some of the UD students,” she said. “People have a fear of consequences. I want to re-emphasize. We are not out to get anyone. We need information to stop the spread of this infection.”
She implored college students to take the threat of the virus seriously.
“There’s a feeling among young adults that it’s just going be a mild infection and it’s not going to affect anyone,” she said. “We know a number of young adults who have had very significant illness, and we just don’t know the long-term impact of this. We’ve got to all take this seriously, no matter what age.”
Rattay noted DPH is working closely with UD and Newark officials to keep the virus in check.
“We’re really grateful to the city of Newark, which is doing a great job with enforcement activities,” she said. “The Newark Police Department is out and about, stopping by house parties and enforcing the gathering limits the city has set.”
Meanwhile, DPH has been conducting compliance checks in Newark bars and restaurants, checking to make sure businesses are following mask and social distancing requirements.
“Enforcement has been heightened, stepped up, and we’re going to continue to step up enforcement in Newark and in any of these areas, especially where we’re seeing increases,” Rattay said.
Mad Mac’s on South College Avenue was cited for several violations, including employees not wearing masks and guests seated too close together. Meanwhile, state officials singled out Home Grown Café and Caffé Gelato as examples of restaurants doing the right thing.
Rattay encouraged all Newarkers to get tested, especially those who may have been exposed to someone with the virus, people in high-risk jobs and people who have been in close contact with people from outside their household.
The state and county host several free testing sites each week, which are listed at de.gov/gettested. Meanwhile, Newark Urgent Care (formerly Newark Emergency Room) on Main Street offers testing seven days a week, though appointments are required.
“In the Newark area, don’t hesitate to get tested soon, as we are seeing increases,” Rattay said.