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Officials urge 38,000 MSU students to quarantine 14 days after COVID spike

Michigan State University
If the vaccine rollout continues as hoped, the vast majority of Michigan State University’s classrooms will have students in them in September, for the first time since March 2020 when the COVID pandemic struck. (Bridge file photo)

The Ingham County Health Department on Saturday urged all Michigan State University students to quarantine for two weeks to halt a rapid growth in coronavirus cases linked to the campus.

The quarantine currently is a recommendation but may become mandatory if case counts continue to skyrocket, according to a news release from the health department.

As of Saturday, there were at least 342 people affiliated with Michigan State University who have tested positive for COVID-19 since Aug. 24, according to the county. In the three weeks prior to Aug. 24, there were just 23 MSU-linked cases. 

MSU officials don’t have an exact count on the number of students living in East Lansing this fall, but spokesperson Emily Guerrant said that in a typical year, about 70 percent of the school’s 55,000 undergraduate and graduate students live off-campus. That would mean about 38,000 students are living near the campus, even though dorms are now mostly shuttered to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The quarantine recommendation, also agreed to by East Lansing and Michigan State officials, starts immediately and runs through 11:59 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26.

Students in quarantine should remain at home for the next two weeks other than to attend in-person instruction, labs and intercollegiate athletic training, according to the release. 

The quarantine recommendation in many ways mirrors Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-home order from earlier this year, asking students to stay in their homes except to work or to obtain food, medicine, medical care, or supplies that are needed to sustain or protect life when such cannot be obtained via delivery.

County health officials said at least a third of new cases had recently attended parties or social gatherings, and at least one-third of those gatherings are associated with a fraternity or sorority, according to the health department news release.

MSU’s own count of coronavirus cases is lower, currently about 200. Guerrant said MSU doesn’t question the health department’s higher count. MSU only tracks positive coronavirus tests for students and staff who take the tests at campus facilities — a student who goes to a hospital drive-thru testing site wouldn’t have their results reported to the health department, not MSU.

“This is an urgent situation,” Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail said in the news release announcing the quarantine recommendation. 

“The exponential growth of COVID-19 cases must stop. I am concerned about the health and safety of the MSU community, and importantly, I am seriously concerned that unchecked transmission locally will affect the health and safety of all Ingham County residents.

“If we do not slow the spread immediately, we will be dealing with the consequences across the county for months to come,” Vail said.

The uptick in cases began as students returned to the East Lansing community for the fall semester, according to the health department release. Although the vast majority of MSU classes are online, many students had binding off-campus leases or simply desired to physically return to the university community.

“MSU is committed to doing everything we can to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” said Michigan State University physician David Weismantel. “The safety of our entire community is a priority and we all have a role to play in preventing the spread of the virus. This recommendation from the health department is another tool to help us do just that.”

Michigan State closed its residence halls and moved virtually all its classes online in August, shortly before students were set to move back to East Lansing. Students and staff are required to wear masks when on campus, and East Lansing officials have mandated masks in the downtown business area around the campus.

Those efforts appear to have had little impact on social gatherings off-campus, where the majority of students live. MSU’s Guerrant said the limit on social gatherings is 25 people. Many parties that East Lansing Police have been breaking up have been in the range of 40-50 people. “This [spike] is not from one [huge]  event,” Guerrant told Bridge Saturday, but “from many small gatherings.”

“We are urging students to understand the imperative role that they play in stopping this community spread and, ultimately, saving lives,” East Lansing Mayor Aaron Stephens said in Saturday’s health department news release. “While we know many students are doing the right thing, we are still seeing far too many social gatherings in the off-campus community, where individuals are in close contact without face coverings.”

Other universities and colleges in Michigan have also faced spikes in coronavirus cases as students returned to campus. Grand Valley State University currently has 462 confirmed cases; Adrian College has 227, and Central Michigan University has had 263 cases linked to its students returning to Mount Pleasant since mid-August, according to the Central Michigan District Health Department (CMU officials say there are only 54 confirmed cases of students and staff since Aug. 31).

Across the state, there are now more than 1,500 confirmed coronavirus cases linked to college campuses since campuses reopened this fall.

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