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Michigan colleges pass 1,000 COVID cases. Apparently, students like to party.

college students
The Whitmer administration has birthed multiple programs since the state of the pandemic aimed at providing financial incentives to get adults in college to start or finish degrees. (Shutterstock)

There are at least 1,226 current, confirmed cases of the coronavirus on Michigan college campuses, fueled by aggressive testing, partying and students visiting other campuses.

And that, predicted one health official, could spill over to older, more vulnerable residents.

COVID’s campus crawl

Michigan’s college campuses are seeing a rapid rise in coronavirus cases. Health officials aren’t optimistic about the rise in cases slowing.

  • Grand Valley State University: 394
  • Central Michigan University: 253
  • Adrian College: 200
  • Michigan State University: 138
  • Michigan Tech: 63
  • University of Michigan-Ann Arbor: 58
  • Western Michigan University: 37
  • Ferris State University: 19
  • Wayne State University: 19
  • Saginaw Valley State University: 16
  • Northern Michigan University: 9 
  • Hope College: 6
  • Lake Superior State University: 4
  • Calvin University: 4
  • Siena Heights University: 2
  • Olivet College: 2
  • Oakland University: 1
  • University of Michigan-Dearborn: 1
  • Alma College: 0

*As of Tuesday afternoon

Linda Vail, health officer for Ingham County, said contact tracers have linked many of the 134 cases connected with Michigan State University to off-campus parties and, in some cases, to students traveling between colleges.

“You can't keep [the virus] just to yourself on MSU’s campus or the surrounding areas of MSU campus,” she said. “You're going to get it, then [infect] somebody at some restaurant or something that you interact with, or your workplace, and before you know it, we've got just transmission throughout the community.”

“Eventually sicker, older people are going to get it too, and then they die,” she said.

While the outbreaks in college towns are still increasing, hospitals statewide have yet to be overrun like they were in the early weeks of the pandemic.

While the virus still infects thousands of people each week, hospitalizations statewide have remained flat for months at just over 600, while deaths have dropped to an average of seven per day this month from 114 in April.

That’s partly because far more younger people are contracting the virus now and often don’t have symptoms. But Vail and others fear what will happen if a large number of students, perhaps asymptomatic, return home at the holidays and have contact with an older, more vulnerable population.

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Two public universities — Grand Valley State University in Ottawa County (394) and Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant (253) — account for more than half the statewide total among colleges.

At Grand Valley, spokesperson Dottie Barnes said the vast majority of the positive COVID-19 test results are from random testing of asymptomatic students before classes began Aug. 31.

But the Ottawa County Health Department has seen off-campus “socialization” behind some of the spread, said Kristina Wieghmink, spokesperson for the agency.

“We can’t pinpoint it to a specific party or specific housing, but with more socialization, it’s going to continue to spike the numbers,” she said.

At CMU, it was clear early on that off-campus activities were contributing to the spread of the virus, so much so that the Central Michigan District Health Department declared a community health emergency and restricted the number of people allowed at indoor gatherings to 10.

Perhaps nowhere is the role of off-campus housing more clear than at Michigan State University, which moved virtually all of its classes online and shuttered its dorms to most students before classes began, in an effort to persuade students to stay home rather than move to East Lansing.

Even then, MSU cases spiked from four in the week that began Aug. 24 to 134 as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the health department.

Ingham County’s Vail said the spike comes from college students doing what college students do — socializing in groups. Though police have broken up gatherings outside, it’s tougher to know about indoor parties, Vail said.

“The MSU cases that we're seeing right now have nothing to do with MSU and face-to-face learning or on-campus living or anything like that,” Vail said. “The cases that we're seeing right now … are largely attributable to social gatherings, parties — parties inside or parties outside, local birthday parties, parties at other college campuses.”

Some of the Ingham County cases, for example, were connected to Grand Valley parties, she said.

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, there were 11 COVID-19 new or ongoing outbreaks on college campuses as of Sept. 3; a week earlier, there were six.

The state data do not provide the number of cases connected to those outbreaks.

Bridge tallied the number of current coronavirus cases by searching the COVID data trackers of some universities and calling others. The 1,226 cases Bridge found Tuesday is likely an undercount; the figure represents the total active cases for the 13 public universities (out of 15 in the state) and six private colleges Bridge was able to obtain data from Tuesday.

Adrian College had 200 confirmed cases of coronavirus, as of Friday; Michigan Technological University in Houghton in the Upper Peninsula has 63, as of Tuesday. The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor has 58 current cases, and Western Michigan University has 37.

The transmission to the community and between campuses will be a growing concern, too, as the holidays approach, and college students return home, gather together, then return to their campuses, said Ottawa County’s Wieghmink.

Vail agreed.

"What we really have to do is emphasize that this is just not a time for partying,” she said.  

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