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Despite COVID cases, experts hopeful about protecting UM, MSU students

Public health experts are cautiously optimistic about the safety of Michigan's two largest universities despite hundreds of people on the campuses testing positive for COVID-19 since the fall semester began. 

Robust vaccination rates and mask mandates on campus largely protect students, faculty and staff at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, but public health experts warn what happens off campus could threaten that protection.

"Those prevention strategies aren't necessarily happening at parties and gatherings," said Susan Ringler Cerniglia, spokeswoman of the Washtenaw County Public Health Department that covers UM. "That is really still where we see the spread. We see it in those social groups, and that's a concern.

Universities were major sites of coronavirus spread last year, even though residence halls were largely empty and classes mostly online

Although mandatory vaccinations provide protection against widespread outbreaks, serious illness and death, the Washtenaw health department's COVID-19 dashboard shows the effect of students' return: a sharp uptick in case numbers, especially among college-aged people.

Whether that continues remains to be seen, Cerniglia said. 

"We really will be watching what happens in the coming weeks," Cerniglia said. "(We'll see) if this was the impact of school starting again and it will level out, or if we'll see continued cases."

Since Aug. 29, 340 UM students, faculty and staff members have tested positive for the virus. Between 6,000 and 7,500 people were tested each week, and the test positivity rate has remained at 1.7% since the semester started on Aug. 31.

The state's test positivity rate has been over 8% for weeks.

At MSU, 168 students, staff and faculty have tested positive. Between 2,000 and 3,500 people are tested each week through MSU's early detection program, and the test positivity rate grew from 1.9% to 3.2% from the semester's first to second week, according to the university's statistics.

Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail said case numbers may be at their highest in the early weeks of the semester like they were last year. Students traditionally attend parties and greet each other after summer break, so they are likely in close contact with each other.

This year is "far better" than last year and predicted MSU case numbers will taper in the coming weeks, she said.

"I think the vaccine requirement is going to make a huge difference, especially in a population where, you know, partying and going out to bars and restaurants and things that are inherently going to be indoors and crowded are going to happen," Vail said. "The vaccine really is going to make a huge difference."

UM's case numbers are reported on the state's list of school-related outbreaks.

Vail said she has not reported MSU's case numbers because she has not received information from the university about where infected students contracted the disease. To be considered a school-related outbreak, she'd have to determine that the transmission happened on school grounds among members of different households. 

Some transmission is likely happening on campus, but "finding linked cases in essentially a city of almost 50,000 people broadly is really challenging," Vail said.

Winter, 'fatigue' pose challenges

UM senior Grace Roberts said she doesn't trust the university's case numbers, since they only include testing through the university, county health department and employees who self-report.

Roberts is a member of UM student government and said the group may push for weekly testing for all students.

She said she has lung problems and is concerned about her safety around other students, some of whom might go to bars and parties where they don't wear masks.

"I find it very scary, because I don't know where other people have been, I don't know what other people have been doing," she said. 

Sarah Reckhow, who teaches political science at MSU, said she is optimistic about the campus vaccination rate. She said her students are good about wearing masks during class and said a 91% vaccination rate, if accurate, "is a very strong layer of protection."

Reckhow sees a gap in that protection: events. She said the university should extend its vaccine mandate to the public who visit to attend indoor performances and sporting events.

"I don't know what they think is going to happen by October when they start having exhibition games for MSU basketball," Reckhow said. "I don't think COVID's going to be gone."

Dr. Subhashis Mitra, an associate professor of medicine and infectious disease expert at MSU, is concerned "pandemic fatigue" will set in and cause people to relax with masking and social distancing — two measures he said help, along with vaccines, to keep people safe on campus.

"It's going to be a challenge, especially when you have new people coming in," Mitra said. "The freshmen, they are not really used to this, so you will have some hiccups for sure where maybe the protocols are not followed."

Last year, Vail limited the size of gatherings in downtown East Lansing to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. She said she does not plan to do the same this year, although she is keeping an eye on transmission rates. Vail cautioned winter gatherings could pose a challenge.

"I think we just have to keep an eye on things like football games," she said. "As football games move on and the tailgating and partying around it moves indoors rather than outdoors because the weather's bad, do we have spikes?"

Verifying vaccination status

Students, faculty and staff at both MSU and UM should have been fully vaccinated by the beginning of fall semester, according to the policies university officials announced this summer

Most are. According to UM's COVID-19 dashboard, 94% of students, 94% of faculty and 80% of staff on the Ann Arbor campus are vaccinated. 

At Michigan State, almost 92% of people on campus are vaccinated, although about 2,000 of the roughly 62,000 people on campus had not responded as of Saturday. University spokesman Dan Olsen said he was not able to break down vaccination rates by students, faculty and staff.

MSU is not auditing the results of its vaccination survey by randomly verifying respondents' vaccination status, but is investigating complaints that are reported to its misconduct hotline to ensure people accurately reported their vaccination status.

UM has not received any complaints of falsified vaccine reports, spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said, but there are staff members "dedicated to verifying the information and resolving any gaps in the information" on forms. 

Discipline for students and employees who aren't vaccinated or haven't responded to the surveys begins this week at both campuses. 

Those who remain unvaccinated and unresponsive at MSU have until Wednesday to comply, spokesman Dan Olsen said. 

On Wednesday, MSU will refer offending students to the Dean of Students' office for discipline that ultimately could result in expulsion. Employees will be referred to the human resources department for discipline that could lead to firing, he said.

UM students who don't respond or remain unvaccinated without an exemption will be placed on "academic hold," Fitzgerald said, which means they won't be allowed to enroll or drop classes or get a transcript. If they remain unvaccinated, they could eventually be expelled.

UM employees who break the campus vaccination rule will be referred to their supervisors for discipline, he said. There is no hard date for the disciplinary process to start, Fitzgerald. 

More exemptions issued at MSU

Both universities allow people to be exempted from the policy for certain medical and religious reasons. MSU also allows students to receive exemptions if they take classes online and don't come to campus. UM does not, although unvaccinated students who don't come to campus don't have to get weekly tests. People who are not fully vaccinated but come to campus must get tests weekly.

UM had issued 662 exemptions as of Friday, Fitzgerald said. Most of them are for religious reasons. The university denied 95 requests. 

MSU had granted 2,051 of the 4,082 exemptions requested as of Saturday, Olsen said. The university has denied 162 requests.

To receive a religious exemption, students, staff or faculty members must do one of the following, according to their request forms:

  • Document their immunization history to show whether it is consistent with their religious belief.
  • Provide written religious materials describing their religious belief, practice or observance.
  • Provide written statements or documents from religious leaders, practitioners, "others with whom the employee/student has discussed their beliefs," or others who have observed the person's religious adherence.

A committee reviews exemption requests, Olsen said. Committee members have backgrounds in medicine, human resources and accommodations, but not religion.

"Every exemption is reviewed on a case by case basis," Olsen said. "It's important that we look at the whole picture and review each one individually."