When University of Dayton (UD) began its fall semester at the end of August, COVID 19 test results on campus showed a positivity rate of well over 40%. But when the students went on Thanksgiving break last week, they had lowered that rate to less than 1% – the level that epidemiologists set for epidemic control.
The UD President Eric Spina praised the process initiated by the university.
” We are a university that somehow found out after a hard start and has positioned itself well,” he told Washington Newsday. “But any infection can be a challenge and lead to negative outcomes. Ideally, it would be a zero positivity rate, but those are pretty hard to find.
Managing the outbreak has allowed the university to function, Spina said.
“In the last two and a half months we have been in a more or less stable situation, where we certainly had some infections on campus, but the positivity rate on campus was lower than in the surrounding area,” he said.
Montgomery County, Ohio, home of the University of Dayton, is suffering from rising positivity rates and COVID 19 patients filling local hospitals. Just before the students went into their Thanksgiving break, the positivity rate on campus was 0.5% compared to the 17% rate in the county this week. County health officials told Washington Newsday that they expect the updated numbers, when available, to show an even higher positivity rate this week.
In most cases, the positivity rate for COVID-19 at the UD has been trending downward rather than upward as the entire university community has fully joined the process, Spina said.
“For us, it was really something like the opposite of what has happened in many places,” he said. “Our most difficult situation, our highest positivity, started early, and then we put ourselves in a better situation during the semester, proactively through the work of the students who followed the protocols and oriented themselves to who our university is, and through the good work of the faculty and staff on campus, and then through partnerships with government agencies and private partners who helped us.
There was one death related to COVID-19 at the university. In October, an 18-year-old freshman fell ill and left the campus to return home. While at home, he tested positive for COVID-19 and died later. Several other students were hospitalized during the semester, but recovered.
Planning for opening the campus to students for the fall semester began in early summer. The university convened 11 internal working groups consisting of administrators, faculty, staff and students to discuss concerns and questions regarding the possibility of going live in August.
“In the end, the decision to bring the students back was based on the work of well over a hundred people in these various working groups, our discussions with the health care system and a lot of detailed planning and consultation with medical experts,” said Spina.
But Spina told Washington Newsday that during the planning process, the university received conflicting news about the reopening from the community.
“On a typical day, I received messages from students and families saying ‘You better open up’ … and then the next hour I received another email or message saying ‘Can you guarantee my child’s safety? said Spina, “Ultimately we felt we had to do the right thing for our students and our community.
Students arriving for the fall semester had to submit negative test results or take a nose test within five days. The university continues to conduct weekly surveillance tests for 3 to 5% of the student body, Spina said.
UD’s medical advisory board is comprised of physicians from nearby Miami Valley Hospital and the parent Premier Health Partners Network, which handles the school’s testing. The university is in constant consultation with the physicians from these health organizations and Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County.
Local health officials told Washington Newsday that they agree with most of the university’s decisions and have been working with the school for months to combat the spread of the virus.
“They included public health early in the planning,” Jeffery A. Cooper, the Dayton & Montgomery County Public Health Commissioner, told Washington Newsday. “That doesn’t mean that all the decisions were easy or that the university may have made decisions that were separate from our guidelines, but at least we worked together on all planning from the beginning,” said Jeffery A. Cooper.
Dr. Michael Dohn, Medical Director of Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County, said that increased testing and testing of target populations and areas of potential exposure contribute to rising infection rates.
When students returned at the beginning of the fall semester, positive results increased in late August and September, with 82% of all positive cases during the semester occurring in the 22 days from August 20 to September 11, Spina said.
“Our peak was early,” he said. “We increased it by being really aggressive in our testing, but the idea was to try to contain it and then prevent it from really spreading.
The school then moved to full distance learning from August 24th to September 16th and began identifying contacts, with classes only resuming when the number of positive tests decreased.
Spina and other school administrators posted news online and held zoom sessions to inform, encourage and congratulate students on their efforts – and to issue warnings when necessary.
“We let the campus know, let the students know that we really were in danger of having to send the students home,” Spina said.
When another spike struck in October, Cooper sent a letter to parents and students expressing the seriousness of the situation and emphasizing the need to follow safety protocols.
There were no reports of large student parties on or near campus, but city officials heard from residents about maskless people gathering outside in the popular bar and restaurant scene near campus without social distancing, Cooper said.
“At many of the places in the Brown Street corridor, which are frequently frequented by University of Dayton students, we received quite a few complaints from the community-mostly for non-compliance,” Cooper said. “As a result, a significant number of our environmental health employees spent time training the companies and working with them on measures they needed to take to ensure safe operations. This was a significant investment of our resources.
UD is the largest private university in Ohio and a Catholic institution with 11,677 students and 2,940 faculty and staff. The campus ministry limited attendance at masses at the beginning of the fall semester, but then switched to virtual services and later reopened the chapel, though without singing during services.
The University credits its students for adapting to best practices in terms of face mask requirements, social distance and restrictions on the size of gatherings, and for successfully reducing the rate of positivity within the university community.
Spina said that “shared institutional values” and the Marian Catholic ideal of “commitment to community” – about half of the student body identifies itself as Catholic – have helped to keep students together in a common effort to combat the spread of the virus.
“This idea of community building is taken very seriously by our students,” said Spina, “You could really see how students wanted to influence other students. And they started pushing each other.”
Informal peer-to-peer efforts and a formal program of the Student Government Association led to an increase in compliance and a decrease in the positivity rate and number of cases on campus, Spina said. He said it was the commitment of the students to make it work that enabled the semester to be successful.
Drew Moyer, a UD junior and university neighborhood scholar, was a member of the housing and student life subcommittee of a summer study group that focused on students returning to campus for the fall semester.
Moyer was also instrumental in discussing with his fellow students the need to comply with coronavirus security protocols on his patrols in a student neighborhood with university housing near the campus.
He said his interactions with his fellow students were productive, but sometimes he needed to remind them of the big picture.
“It really needed to be said: ‘We need to start thinking more about others and less about ourselves,’ Moyer told Washington Newsday. “When we are here on campus, we are helping the community around us, not just the Dayton campus, but the larger Dayton community and the Montgomery County community.
Before the Thanksgiving vacations, the U.S., like many other U.S. colleges and universities, instructed students not to return to campus for the rest of the semester, and since Monday classes have been resumed by distance learning.
“We had made the decision, simply because of the risk of pushing students across the country and bringing them back, that we would end most of the on-campus classes with Thanksgiving,” Spina said, “and then the semester will end in the next few weeks with exams and virtual starts and so on. It’s all going to happen virtually.
The university did not conduct exit tests for students who were going on Thanksgiving break because they felt that the tests and lab resources could be better used for the community in the Dayton area. The school also did not want to give students a false sense of security when they were on their way home to spend the holiday with family members.
Although plans for the spring semester are still in flux, the school is likely to have tested the arriving students quickly upon arrival. If the test is positive, the students will go into isolation. For the first two weeks of the semester, classes will be online only, with on-site classes starting as soon as the positivity rate allows.
The Mayor of Dayton’s office did not respond to requests for comments on this story.