What do college reopening cases show so far? How Vermont compares

Mike Pieciak
Mike Pieciak, who leads Vermont’s Covid-19 model efforts, talked about the latest projections at a press briefing on Friday. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Despite the slight spikes in cases expected from returning college students this fall, Mike Pieciak doesn’t believe Vermont will have the same problems as the University of North Carolina, which was forced to close under the pressure of intense outbreaks.

Pieciak, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, pointed to significant differences between UNC and another college that’s finished its reopening, Northern Vermont University, with campuses in Lyndon and Johnson.

But NVU is only one of 13 Vermont colleges that will offer some level of in-person schooling this semester. How does UNC stack up to the rest of Vermont’s college system? And what does the data show us so far about the possibility of student outbreaks in Vermont?

UNC was forced to close its campus and move classes online after a week of instruction because 177 students tested positive for Covid. 

The college paper, The Daily Tar Heel, blasted the institution after multiple clusters appeared at residence halls and a fraternity.

“University leadership should have expected students, many of whom are now living on their own for the first time, to be reckless,” the paper wrote in an editorial. “Though these students are not faultless, it was the university’s responsibility to disincentivize such gatherings by reconsidering its plans to operate in-person earlier on.”

The editorial also criticizes the university for ignoring the advice of health experts in the region who were concerned about North Carolina’s relatively high rate of Covid cases to begin with.

How Vermont compares

Pieciak’s presentation pointed out significant differences between NVU and UNC. NVU draws mainly students from  Vermont and nearby states, and those states have a far lower prevalence of disease than UNC’s origins in the South and California.

He also noted NVU has conducted 2,347 tests on its roughly 1,500 students, compared to nearly 5,000 tests for UNC’s 30,000 students. 

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While colleges in Vermont do draw a disproportionate number of students from New England, they also have varying levels of out-of-state student populations. 

About a quarter of University of Vermont students and half of Middlebury College students who are U.S. residents come from outside of New England and New York, according to fall 2019 enrollment data.

By contrast, only about 6% of students at NVU are from outside the region, according to Vermont State Colleges data.

It’s hard to say how many cases and tests individual Vermont colleges are doing compared to NVU or UNC. Colleges are reporting their results using a patchwork of online systems on their own websites, making it difficult to do direct comparisons.

For example, Middlebury reports the total number of active cases along with its cumulative total of cases and tests so far. 

But UVM reports only the number of positive tests it’s received this week and not a cumulative total, although it does report whether the tests are of on-campus or off-campus students. (According to VTDigger’s tracking, UVM has had at least 14 positive tests so far, but at least five of them were “pre-arrival” students getting tested before they came to Vermont.)

Good news on testing

Beyond the problems of individual college data reporting, Vermont’s data on the system as a whole has some encouraging signs.

Pieciak said 8,679 people at colleges have been tested so far and roughly 19 have tested positive, translating to a 0.22% positivity rate — extremely low compared to the national average.

Another 6,436 students and staff have been tested and await results. Still, they’ve contributed to Vermont’s record-high testing in recent weeks. The state has tested more than 16,000 people in the past seven days alone.

While Vermont once struggled to reach 1,000 tests per day, it’s now consistently testing above 2,000 people. And a small spike in last week’s case growth is already trending downward.

A low case rate in nonstudents could be helpful for students, too. Once students are fully settled into their new homes, they’ll potentially be catching germs from members of a community with about 100-200 active cases statewide — compared to tens of thousands in North Carolina.

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Erin Petenko

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