Iowa State administration speaks on COVID-19 response

As students have returned to campus and taken part in large crowds for parties, concerns have been raised about Iowa State’s response to the risk of COVID-19.

Kylee Haueter, and Jill Even

Questions and concerns have been raised about the efficacy of Iowa State’s COVID-19 response because of decisions made by other universities. 

While COVID-19 lab samples are “constantly” being sent to Iowa State’s Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, only students in residence halls are required by the university to be tested prior to move in. The results are being updated weekly and do not include self-reports of positive cases.

The self-reports come from the students, faculty and staff who get tested off campus. The form is for contact tracing purposes and to get those who tested positive connected with a case manager.

Multiple factors were considered in the decision to only test students in residence halls opposed to testing all students before they start classes like some universities are doing.

Those factors include the limited resource availability of testing supplies, turnaround time for results and wanting a “really accurate method of testing,” explained Erin Baldwin, assistant vice president for Student Health Services and director of Thielen Student Health Center.

In a news release published Aug. 14, Baldwin and Rodger Main, director of Iowa State’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, both emphasized the sensitivity and accuracy of the tests being used by Iowa State.

In some cases, patients have falsely tested negative because they were tested too early into the infection cycle to get an accurate test result. The testing being used by Iowa State is highly sensitive, meaning it will pick up minimal levels of COVID-19 in hopes to reduce the possibility of a false negative.

Testing students in residence halls is consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines about congregate housing, Baldwin added.

“We want to make sure that each day we can get a comprehensive view of that data and review it to make sure that everything is accurate and that we’re reporting everything,” Baldwin said. “This data does span over multiple days, specifically with reporting testing results, so we wanted to do it on a weekly basis.”

In the two weeks of move-in testing, 8,094 students living in the residence halls and campus apartments were tested and 175 tested positive for COVID-19 for a 2.2 percent positivity rate.

After just one week of classes, the University of North Carolina announced Monday their students moved to online instruction. In that week, the COVID-19 positivity rate at UNC increased from 2.8 percent to 13.6 percent.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds issued an order in July that said school districts in counties that reach a 15 percent positivity threshold in a two-week period may file a request to go 100 percent online, but Iowa State has stayed away from placing any specific number on when or if the decision would be made to revert to online classes.

“We have a lot of metrics and we’ve tried not to get too granular and say ‘this is the one number that would drive us one way or another,’” Baldwin said. 

Iowa State and Ames residents expressed concerns about a sharp increase of cases around campus from mass exposure after hundreds of students attended “801 day” parties over the weekend.

“It was heartbreaking to see, but not totally surprising,” said Peter Englin, assistant vice president of residence halls and Student Affairs, of the 801 day activities.

Members of the Iowa State administration say it is difficult to enforce off-campus parties, as it is not the university’s jurisdiction. Instead, efforts are focused toward mitigation strategies and encouraging students to not participate in large gatherings.

Iowa State is partnering with the city of Ames, Ames Police Department and Ames community partners and stakeholders — including landlords — to help mitigate large gatherings off campus.

On campus, students are expected to practice social and physical distancing and consistently use face coverings. Action will be taken if students repeatedly disregard these safety measures.

Sharron Evans, dean of students, said they look at the “level of disregard” for the safety measures and then look at what disciplinary actions could be used. 

“Can it possibly lead to removing that student from campus, yes,” Evans said. “But there are a number of circumstances and mitigating circumstances that would have to be taken into place. Every case is different, it’s a case-by-case situation.”

On Tuesday, Drake University in Des Moines sent 14 students home for two weeks after they were caught violating COVID-19 guidelines about large gatherings and parties.

Evans mentioned the “Party Smart” campaign Iowa State developed to help encourage students to follow health and safety guidelines set in place by the CDC and to reduce their risk of “alcohol-related consequences” while at parties.

“We have, from the very beginning as part of our fall planning, put together this Party Smart campaign,” Evans said. “I think we try to continue to market and encourage and galvanize students to comply in every way possible, and that’s just one of the tools we have. It’s a challenge, but we’re doing it.”

Englin said residence facilities have established precautions to help protect students and staff.

“First off, facial coverings are required in all of our facilities,” Englin said. “And we recognize that is a learning process for a lot of our students. They may not have even been using facial coverings before coming to Ames and Iowa State. We know that everybody is engaged in that, learning how to use those.”

He said they have also installed 300 hand sanitizer stations and put up over 6,000 posters throughout residence halls and apartments to promote physical distancing, hand hygiene and face coverings. 

Many of the students that were tested prior to moving in were asymptomatic and not aware they had COVID-19, Englin said. 

“That’s not unusual within this age group,” he said. “They may be feeling just fine but they’re actually shedding and potentially could impact other folks.” 

Gatherings such as hall meetings are being conducted virtually unless absolutely necessary and preventative measures such as cleaning and reduced capacity are also being taken in common areas. 

“The beginning of the year for us is always about the teaching aspect, the educating aspect moving into the accountability aspect,” Englin said. “We’re better now than we were when we started moving students in on August third, so we just see this kind of progression as students take these measures more seriously. It really is about a lot of good decision-making on the students’ part.”

Englin also spoke about accommodations being made for the students who test positive and need to isolate or are notified through contact tracing that they need to quarantine. 

“For those folks that we’ve learned live within our community that are positive for COVID-19, we’re using isolation spaces for them to get better,” he said. “We’ve held 150 rooms for folks to use for isolation, coordinated with ISU Dining to get meals delivered, we’ve put microwaves and refrigerators in each of those rooms, we’ve purchased fans if students needed those.”

In addition to the 150 rooms set aside for isolation, 250 rooms have been set aside for students to quarantine. Out of the 400 rooms available in total, only 70 are currently being used, which Englin believes is a good sign when it comes to making sure there is enough room for everyone. 

Some students have returned home for quarantine, but space is available for those that can’t.

Englin said there is no current plan to do residence hallwide testing, but the option may be revisited based on how things evolve. 

“Everyday our public health folks are evaluating what’s going on in our community,” Englin said. “We really rely on our public health folks because they monitor what’s taking place at Iowa State and in Ames. If they have any guidance or recommendations, we’re going to follow them.”

Based on how things go and what the data shows over the next few weeks, Baldwin said other forms of testing are being considered as well, such as surveillance testing.

“Each and every one of us is ultimately responsible for our own safety,” Englin said. “We have already heard from public health leaders just wearing face coverings in all circumstances dramatically changes our infection rate. While it is improving every day, too many folks are slow to embrace what is a very simple behavior that would keep ourselves and others safer.”

Students showing symptoms or who have been in contact with a known positive case of COVID-19 are encouraged to get tested for their safety and the safety of those around them. Self-reporting is available on Thielen Student Health Center’s website