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Grand Valley State students ordered to stay home to tamp down COVID-19 upswing

Facing a surge in COVID-19 cases threatening to spread into the community, Ottawa County health officials on Wednesday issued a two-week “staying-in-place” order for Grand Valley State University students living both on and off-campus. It requires students to hunker down in their dorms or apartments except for food, classes and work.


Additionally, students are ordered to not return to their hometowns until the emergency order is lifted Oct. 2.

County health officials say they’ve been frustrated with continued parties and other social gatherings among young people as well as a lack of cooperation in contact tracing. According to Greg Sanial, chief financial officer at GVSU, the average number of contacts given to county health officials by Ottawa County residents who test positive is between three and five people; for GVSU students, it's less than one.

In a letter to students Wednesday, GVSU President Philomena Mantella urged students to cooperate when they receive calls from county health officials. “Fully disclosing contacts is strictly for the purpose of keeping our community healthy. Please comply to keep friends and colleagues out of harm’s way,” Mantella wrote.

You can read the stay-in-place order here.

Public health officials also are asking families to steer clear of the campus this weekend — the traditional Family Weekend at GVSU. (This year, the event was virtual.)

The order comes after more than 600 students at the 22,000-student West Michigan public university have tested positive for COVID-19 since Aug. 23 — a week before classes began. The majority are off-campus students and “appear to be driven by congregate living and congregate gathering,” according to the health department.

In fact, county-wide, one-third of all cases in the county — 1,037 of 3,030 cases — were confirmed since Aug. 23 and are primarily centered on the Allendale campus west of Grand Rapids, said Marcia Mansaray, deputy health administrator.

One worrying sign for Grand Valley and other campuses trying to continue classes during the pandemic — the cases appear to be spreading not through a few large, super-spreader events, but from gatherings of five or fewer people hanging out in a room, Sanial, the CFO, told reporters in an online news conference Wednesday.

The county health department didn’t find super-spreader events, nor does it appear that the spread is linked to classes, Mansaray told Bridge Michigan.

“We really, really need to impress upon the students that this is the time —  if you want this strange college year to be a little bit less strange — we’ve got 14 days to try to box in this virus,” she said.

One significant problem in controlling the spread: Students are refusing to tell health officials who they’ve been hanging out with, making the contact tracing that is vital to interviewing and warning people who were in close contact with infected people nearly impossible, Mansaray and GVSU officials said.

The order is aimed at curbing even small gatherings. Under the four-page order, GVSU students are allowed to leave their places of residence only for the following reasons:

  • To attend in-person classes, including labs and physical education classes. About 20 percent of classes at the Allendale campus are being held in-person.
  • To pick up food and other basic needs, attend medical appointments or pick up medication, attend religious practice activities or to obtain COVID-19 testing.
  • To go to work with the approval of the employer if the work is essential and cannot be done remotely.
  • To attend clinical rotations, student teaching or other off-campus experiential learning assignments — but only only with approval from the college dean and disclosure to the organization of placement.
  • And for physical activity in groups of no more than two, with strict adherence to preventive measures.

Those lockdown exemptions are similar to those issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer when she ordered a statewide stay-home order in April.

“All of us share the goal of keeping our communities safe,” GVSU President Mantella said in a news release. “GVSU remains committed to following all public health guidance and to stopping the spread of this virus.”

Sanial said Grand Valley is currently tracking 370 coronavirus cases confirmed in the past 10 days, including 273 students who live off-campus in Ottawa County, 48 who live in residence halls and four faculty members. School officials said they aren’t aware of anyone linked to Grand Valley who is hospitalized due to coronavirus. 

At least 80 cases have been confirmed outside of Ottawa County that were connected to Grand Valley students, including one case of a K-12 student that necessitated a quarantining of several classmates at that school, Mansaray said.

Such cases, she said, have ripple effects. Those K-12 students must stay at home, putting additional pressures on their parents to find care for them during the day, she said.

“We’re terribly concerned about the Grand Valley students, themselves, but we’re beginning to see that it’s leaking out of the campus,” she said, noting that at least one student went to the emergency room with severe symptoms. “That would have dire consequences for so many people.”

While health officials sounded the alarm Wednesday, Grand Valley officials told reporters the school had no plans to change its operations to attempt to mitigate the virus spread. The 1 in 5 classes that were offering face-to-face instruction will continue to do so, and campus cafeterias and libraries will remain open.

Mantella said campus facilities are already retrofitted for social distancing, and classes are capped at 17 students spaced out in large rooms. Students wear face masks on campus.

Sanial said there’s been no evidence through contact-tracing that suggests the virus is spreading from classrooms.

“We have 40 students who are taking nothing but online classes who have tested positive, so being online isn’t necessarily a solution,” Sanial said.

There are at least 22 new or ongoing coronavirus outbreaks on 13 college campuses in Michigan, with more than 1,300 students testing positive in those cases.

On Monday, residents of 23 fraternities and sororities, as well as seven other housing complexes connected to Michigan State University were quarantined for 14 days to try to stem a surge of coronavirus cases in East Lansing. That order came just two days after a health department recommendation that all MSU students living near the campus should stay in their apartments.

GVSU’s Sanial argued at Wednesday’s news conference that the health department’s order wasn’t a true quarantine or lockdown, and suggested that the action was a reflection of aggressive testing, rather than an out-of-control outbreak.

The coronavirus test positivity rate for the campus is 3.4 percent, only slightly above the Ottawa countywide rate of 3 percent over the past seven days.

“We could have not done testing and our numbers would be lower, but we wouldn’t be as safe of a community as we are right now,” Sanial said.

Just how much students will adhere is unclear.

Britney Terrell, a senior from Romulus studying criminal justice, says the message from public health officials is confusing. The order suggests students should avoid each other,  yet they still can go to class, for example.

She also questions how it would be enforced.

“I get the precautions they want everyone to take, but the order — it just feels wishy-washy,” she said.

But Grand Valley student Kayla Brown said she welcomes the effort.

She said GVSU has been dogged about ensuring social distancing and cleaning. She’s seen staff wiping down dining tables and spraying down empty classrooms.

It’s the off-campus activities that worry her.

At a restaurant where she stopped by recently — masked — to pick up a carryout meal, she overheard students talking about an upcoming weekend party at a nearby apartment.

A senior studying public relations and advertising and applying to grad school now, Brown said the conversation only compounded her worries.

“It’s overwhelming. I have so much to do — finishing classes, working, applying to grad school. I have enough to do without worrying about getting sick and taking it home to my family,” she said. “It’s all super stressful.”

She said she’s normally a “pretty social person,” and she’s saddened social gatherings (“my favorite parts of college”) have been put on hold during the pandemic, “but it’s for the betterment of everyone.”

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