Less than two weeks into the semester, the University of Delaware is running out of isolation space as a COVID-19 spike hits the campus.
On Wednesday, UD reported 105 new cases – its highest one-day total ever. So far this week, UD has seen 119 cases, which is already the worst week since early March.
“This number may be discouraging and anxiety-inducing, and we need your help to safeguard our community,” Vice President for Student Life José-Luis Riera and Director of Student Health Services Dr. Timothy Dowling wrote in a letter to students Wednesday.
They said that, much like last year, the virus is spreading at large off-campus parties.
“In classrooms and indoor campus spaces, mask use and physical distancing continue to be highly effective at slowing the spread of the virus,” Riera and Dowling wrote. “However, large off-campus gatherings are fueling the rise in cases.”
Newark’s pandemic-era restrictions on private gatherings – limiting parties to 20 people outdoors or 10 indoors – have not been in effect but are likely to return soon.
As the law is written, the restrictions will be retriggered if the city sees two consecutive weeks of 125 or more cases per 100,000 residents or a test positivity rate of 6 percent or higher. It appears Newark has already surpassed that threshold, but the city has not yet announced it will begin to enforce the ordinance.
According to the UD officials, the on-campus isolation space is nearing capacity, and the university will ask students who test positive to go home to their permanent residence to quarantine.
“The rise in cases at UD matches the situation in Delaware and the nation, with the increases due primarily to the virus’ Delta variant,” Riera and Dowling wrote. “While more than 90 percent of you are fully vaccinated, the Delta variant is highly contagious and has infected some vaccinated individuals.”
UD has seen a total of 196 cases since students returned for the fall semester. University officials did not say how many of those who tested positive were actually showing symptoms.
The rapid rise in cases is a discouraging sign for UD, which had hoped that a vaccine mandate and an indoor mask mandate would allow for a relatively normal semester.
Even with nearly all students vaccinated, UD has seen slightly more cases in the first two weeks of this fall than it did in the first two weeks of Fall 2020, though there were fewer students on campus last year.
On Tuesday, the faculty union, the American Association of University Professors, sent a letter to the UD President Dennis Assanis and Provost Robin Morgan, urging them to institute stronger COVID-19 precautions.
The letter called for mandatory weekly testing of all students and employees on campus, regardless of vaccination status. Currently, only those who are unvaccinated are required to be tested.
“We are perplexed and troubled by the lack of thorough surveillance testing and additional measures that would seem prudent to put in place because of the rapidly spreading Delta variant. We believe that this lack of appropriate measures is creating a potentially dangerous situation that could erupt later (or even sooner) during this fall semester,” AAUP-UD President Deni S. Galileo wrote. “We ask that this inadequacy be corrected, and that the university implement our requested items immediately, along with other measures that would contribute to the health and safety of UD faculty, staff, and students.”
The union also called on UD to reverse a new policy that restricts the number of access points to campus buildings. At the beginning of the semester, the university began keeping some doors locked in the name of increased security.
“This restriction of access to buildings forces people to funnel though doors, especially between classes, thus decreasing physical distancing and increasing congregation outside buildings while most people are still unmasked,” Galileo wrote.
In a letter to faculty Wednesday, Morgan wrote that professors can temporarily move classes online for up to two weeks if they determine that the number of students who are sick or in quarantine negatively affects student learning.
However, she added that professors are prohibited from informing students if someone in the class has tested positive. Instead, professors are encouraged to give students a generic message that due to the university’s rising COVID-19 numbers, students should assume it’s possible they have been in contact with people who could be contagious.
Anyone determined to be in “close contact” with a COVID-19 positive individual, as defined by CDC and Division of Public Health guidelines, will be notified by Student Health Services.