URBANA — With two weeks until Thanksgiving, a long winter ahead and new restrictions on the University of Illinois campus, officials are hoping people don’t develop pandemic fatigue.
Unlike humans, “the virus doesn’t get tired,” said Marty Burke, the chemistry professor leading the UI’s testing effort. “We all have to recommit ourselves to staying very safe.”
With an increase in COVID-19 cases on campus, the UI is encouraging students and employees to limit their activities and increasing how often grad students, faculty and staff have to get tested.
An average of more than 50 cases are being detected each day on campus, up from about 10 a day in mid-October.
The seven-day test-positivity rate is now higher for faculty and staff than it is for undergraduates, Chancellor Robert Jones wrote this week in a mass email.
Jones said the virus is spreading from the community to the UI, not from the UI to the community.
“This is driven by the dramatic increase in the cases in East Central Illinois during this time period. From contact tracing, we can determine that this is not due to classroom or on-the-job transmission,” Jones said. “The spread is likely to be through your household or social contacts.”
Burke also said his team looked at what the UI’s rising caseload correlates with.
“When we do that, the only thing we see correlation with is the rising case numbers in the surrounding community,” Burke said.
The positivity rate is higher among faculty and staff, Burke said, because they tend to have more exposure to the community.
And, he said, “we’ve gotten a really good level of compliance from undergraduates overall.”
While Burke said there remain some issues, “in terms of complaints, we don’t have a rise in complaints.”
“Undergraduates are also experiencing a rise in cases, but it’s tracking with what we’re seeing for the staff,” Burke said.
He is optimistic the changes Jones announced will slow the spread of the disease.
“We saw it work last time,” he said, referring to the spike in cases after students returned in the fall. “And because we have the data in real time, we can move and pivot and make changes.”
Among the changes: Grad students, faculty and staff — who had been reduced to testing once a week — will now return to testing twice a week, the same frequency as undergraduates, Jones said.
Jones also encouraged them to work from home, if possible, for the next three weeks and participate only in essential activities.
Last week, Jones sent a similar mass email to undergraduates, which read in part: “This past weekend saw gatherings associated with Halloween, football and no doubt other events. By not consistently wearing masks, minimizing social gatherings, properly washing hands and getting tested, your peers’ actions have led to a concerning and rapid increase in the number of new undergraduate COVID-19 positive cases very similar to the trend we saw in August and early September.”
Jones warned students not to host or attend parties and to limit themselves to essential activities if they’re planning to travel over Thanksgiving.
“If we do not address this on-campus trend right now, we will be forced to take more extreme measures before Fall Break,” Jones wrote.
If students travel, Jones said they shouldn’t return until spring semester to reduce the risk of spreading the virus further. If they return early, they must test every other day until the end of the semester, Jones said.
“Students who return to or have remained in the community after Fall Break must limit themselves to essential activities only, such as testing, visiting the pharmacy and buying groceries through the end of the semester,” he wrote.