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Central Michigan started class Monday. By Friday: 38 coronavirus cases

By Friday, the end of the first week of classes at Central Michigan University, there were 38 confirmed cases of coronavirus connected to students, and the college was warning that the campus could switch to remote learning if “selfish” students keep throwing parties.

The number of coronavirus cases connected to CMU, which requires students to check in on an app daily to report possible symptoms, increased from five last week, to 38 this week, according to Melissa DeRoche, spokesperson for the Central Michigan District Health Department, which provides health services for Isabella County, where the CMU campus is located.

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Shortly after the health department released a statement about the surge of cases, CMU issued a warning to students that they could face fines, or even suspension from school, if they attend large parties.

“Without fail, at other institutions nationwide, large weekend parties have resulted in an increase in positive COVID-19 diagnoses — and in some, the shutdown of their entire campuses,” said the letter, signed by Tony Voisin, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs. 

“The actions of a few selfish students have ruined an entire year for thousands of their peers. The same will happen here at CMU if students continue to engage in this type of reckless, irresponsible behavior.”

A video of hundreds of young people reportedly streaming out of student apartments after police shut down a large party late Thursday night was posted to Twitter.

“I don’t think anyone is surprised by any of this,” said Matt Johnson, associate professor of educational leadership at CMU. “Anybody who’s been looking at the science and understands college student behavior, we knew what was going to happen. I’ve never wanted to be wrong more in my life.”

Health officials in Washtenaw and Ingham counties — homes to the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, respectively — banned gatherings of more than 25 people around campus this week. Those who violate the health orders faced a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $200, according to the health departments.

Officials with the Central Michigan Health District also asked students Friday to cooperate with contact tracers if they are called and isolate themselves if they are asked to do so.

Dr. Jennifer Morse, medical director for the health department, said contact tracers found that some CMU students held “basically their normal welcome week activities and house parties, so we’re just seeing explosive numbers of cases.”

While some students take COVID-19 precautions seriously, others do not, Morse said. 

“The population is challenging because they just do not adjust their lifestyle whatsoever,” Morse said. “I’m not going to make a universal judgement, but, you know, they have house parties where large groups of people are in very close quarters for large amounts of time.”

Local health departments have reported at least 14 school-related COVID-19 outbreaks in Southeast Michigan and northward on its east side, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. At least 11 were ongoing or new outbreaks this week, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, told Bridge Michigan on Friday.

It’s not clear which were K-12 schools and which were colleges and universities.

Khaldun said that a lag in reporting and an outdated surveillance system hinders state efforts to quickly get school outbreak information. 

The CMU cases appear to be yet another outbreak; Isabella County sits just west of regions that MDHHS named.

CMU’s Johnson said he taught face-to-face classes this week, and that students wore masks and socially distanced. “I didn't hear of a single incidence where a student didn’t do what they were supposed to on campus,” Johnson said. “The problem is, what do they do after they leave our class?”

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, both quickly pivoted to online learning recently after a surge of coronavirus cases in the first weeks of classes. Johnson said he wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing happens at some Michigan colleges.

“The people who said this was never going to work, it seems to be coming to fruition,” Johnson said. “Now the question is: How long can you contain [an outbreak] before you pivot to most or totally remote.”

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