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UNO Announces Positive COVID-19 Cases, Higher Education Institutions Commit To Transparency

Aubri Juhasz
Dillard University upperclassman move into overflow housing at the Southern University of New Orleans on Aug. 14, 2020.

Five students and one employee have tested positive for COVID-19 at the University of New Orleans since Aug. 10, UNO President John Nicklow said in a campus message Thursday.

The positive individuals are in quarantine, Nicklow said. Through contact tracing, the university also identified and isolated 17 students who may have been exposed to the virus.

“The presence of the coronavirus on our campus is not surprising,” Nicklow said. “We know that the virus is in our communities, and our campus community — in spite of our many preparations — is no different.”

UNO is not testing students when they return to campus nor are they conducting surveillance testing of the campus population. Instead, they are relying on community members to self-report if they test positive for COVID-19, experience symptoms, or believe they’ve been exposed to the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend testing all students, faculty and staff when they return to campus because the approach has not been systematically studied.

They do suggest that in areas with “moderate to substantial community transmission” and “where resources allow,” colleges and universities may consider testing some or all asymptomatic students, faculty and staff with no known exposure to “identify outbreaks and inform control measures.”

UNO started the semester virtually on Aug. 19 and plans to begin offering in-person classes after Aug. 28, though some courses will remain entirely online.

Nicklow called on students, staff and faculty to minimize the spread of the virus by wearing face coverings, social distancing, washing their hands, and avoiding large groups.

“It doesn’t matter if you feel healthy and your friends look healthy, and it really doesn’t matter who you are with — the virus does not care,” Nicklow said. “If you insist on gathering in groups, the virus will spread within our campus community and likely within your own friends and family. And it will negatively impact your own ability to have a full campus experience.”

In the past few weeks, colleges and universities across the country have welcomed students to campus, only to send them back home after seeing a rise in positive cases.

On Monday, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced it would shift undergraduate instruction online after 130 students tested positive for the coronavirus during the first week of classes. A day later, Michigan State University said it would do the same.

“The vast majority of what I have seen over the last week demonstrates full compliance and a prioritization of safety and health,” Nicklow said. “Still, I have witnessed some wearing a face covering that does not cover the nose. I have seen examples of people choosing not to socially distance in groups. This will ultimately hurt us all, and it jeopardizes your ability to have the kind of semester you want.”

Nicklow said that he has adjusted his behavior to assume that potentially everyone he encounters is infected. He encouraged students to do the same and to get tested for COVID-19 regularly. Drive-thru COVID-19 testing is available at the UNO Lakefront Arena until Aug. 29.

Going forward, Louisiana’s colleges and universities will publicly report positive COVID-19 cases on a weekly basis through Louisiana’s Department of Health. The decision was made following a meeting with health officials and higher education leaders on Wednesday.

Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary for Louisiana’s Office of Public Health, attended the meeting and said at a press conference Thursday that the agency’s top priority is understanding where there are outbreaks and preventing their spread.

"On campus, you've got both on-campus and off-campus living. You've got sprawling buildings and a variety of places that could be linked to outbreaks,” Billioux said.

Louisiana’s Department of Health does not yet have a timeline as to when they will begin publicly releasing information but plans to share self-reported positive cases for each individual campus. Students who test positive for COVID-19 but are studying remotely will not be included.

Louisiana State University system began reporting their positive test results Wednesday after previously saying they would keep the information private.

Like the University of New Orleans, LSU is not testing all students when they return to campus, nor are they requiring them to get tested on their own.

Tulane University has mandated that all students get tested at their arrival center before moving into their dorms, and other schools like Dillard University and Xavier University of Louisiana are requiring that students either get tested before returning to campus or get tested through the universities health services when they arrive.

Disclosure: The University of New Orleans holds the license for WWNO.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s audio stories.

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