On Tuesday evening, UB set a new benchmark in the fight against COVID: with 21 total active cases, the school now has fewer on-campus cases than at any point since the start of the fall semester, according to the university’s COVID dashboard.
University officials and public health experts are crediting a specific group of people with keeping campus safe: the student body.
“I think that our student body gets a tip of the cap here,” said Thomas Russo, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the UB Department of Medicine. “At the end of the day, cases are prevented by public health measures: mask usage, social distancing, appropriate hand hygiene. I think that our student body has settled into a routine where they understand what they need to do to minimize risk and be safe.”
UB has had as many as 93 active on-campus cases of COVID this semester, but in the last few weeks, that number has been trending downward. This comes at a time when other state universities — including Binghamton, Cortland and Oswego — have been forced to shift to online classes after spikes in positive tests.
UB currently has 20 on-campus COVID cases. Among those affected are eight students living on-campus, 12 students living off-campus but taking on-campus classes and one employee working on-campus. An additional 12 students living off-campus but taking classes remotely have tested positive for the virus in the past 14 days.
UB also has 10 students currently in on-campus isolation/quarantine.
The recent decrease can be attributed to “student cooperation and compliance,” according to UB spokesperson John DellaContrada, who also noted that “UB has dedicated teams of people working around the clock each and every day to mitigate the spread of the virus and keep students, faculty and staff safe.”
At the start of the semester, UB instituted dozens of policies aimed at keeping the university community safe: randomized surveillance testing, daily health checks, mask wearing, social distancing, bans on mass gatherings and reduced dorm capacity, among others.
But policies alone don’t keep individuals safe; that requires a coordinated buy-in from students. Russo believes that those two factors — detailed policies and widespread buy-in — are contributing to the recent dip in cases.
“I think it’s all of the above,” Russo said. “At the end of the day, we know how the virus is transmitted. We know how to protect ourselves. We know which sort of activities will increase risk. I think credit needs to be given to the students. We can educate individuals endlessly — just look at the parts of the country that have chosen not to listen to public health recommendations — but if they choose not to pay attention, you’re going to run into trouble.”
Jared Alstadt, an associate professor of geography in the College of Arts and Sciences, said “sustained compliance” among the university community has been fueling the recent downswing in cases.
“There really is no secret to mitigation,” Aldstadt said. “Social distancing, masks, hygiene and testing are key. Sustained compliance on these measures is likely behind any differences between campuses.”
On Sept. 14, SUNY announced state schools would temporarily suspend in-person learning if they reach 100 positive cases or if 5% of the student body contracts the virus over a rolling, two-week period.
UB is currently at 12 cases between Oct. 10 and Oct. 23, the designated two-week period.
Some students have been skeptical that the COVID dashboard presents a complete picture of the virus on campus, since UB only offers randomized surveillance testing, instead of consistent tests or implementing an on-campus testing site. And while Russo acknowledged that the dashboard surely leaves out some cases, DellaContrada said he is confident it presents an accurate snapshot of the university community.
“The dashboard numbers are accurate and can be trusted,” DellaContrada said. “Each day, the university obtains, compiles and confirms information from three sources and then posts the results on the dashboard.”
The positive cases come from UB’s reporting hotline, the Erie County Department of Health and Student Health Services, according to DellaContrada.
“The fact that cases are down is a reflection that they are doing a good job,” Russo said.
There are other reasons why the university is on a better trajectory, Russo said. One of the most important is that transmission is down across Western New York. In particular, Erie County has a 1.1% positive test rate, as of Oct. 19. This is considerably lower than the 2% positive test rate the county reported a month ago, on Sept. 19.
“Erie County in general is doing better,” Russo said. “The community cases have been down. A lot of students are commuters. At UB, we’re not a vacuum. We interact with the community. And that [decrease in community transmission] has been a big help.”
Public health officials also cited surveillance testing, a reduction in on-campus density, Erie County Department of Health contact tracing and the Daily Health Check as reasons why the case total is down.
“I think it’s a combination of all these things: awareness that this is important, execution by the student body, a lower rate in the community,” Russo said. “All of these have been helpful and beneficial. Keeping my fingers crossed that we can keep this going.”
Justin Weiss is the senior features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Justin Weiss is The Spectrum's managing editor. In his free time, he can be found hiking, playing baseball or throwing things at his TV when his sports teams aren't winning. His words have appeared in Elite Sports New York and the Long Island Herald. He can be found on Twitter @Jwmlb1.