Georgia college leaders worry as COVID-19 cases rise before Labor Day

A medical worker shows an appointment document while socially distanced to verify at COVID Surveillance Asymptomatic Testing center at Legion Field in Athens as the University of Georgia started classes for the fall semester on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

COVID-19 cases have surged on some of Georgia’s largest public campuses, impacting nearby communities and leaving school leaders worried about even more cases after the upcoming Labor Day holiday.

The University of Georgia reported 821 positive cases between Aug. 24-28, part of its first full week of the fall semester. The number was four times higher than the prior five-day total of 189 cases. About one-half of the recent cases were self-reported by students and employees, which is required by the university.

UGA announced Wednesday it’s expanding a plan to have about 500 rooms on and off campus for students to stay in isolation or quarantine if they are showing symptoms of, have tested positive for, or have come in close contact with someone who has contracted COVID-19.

UGA President Jere Morehead called the increase “concerning.”

“Resist the temptation to organize or attend a large social gathering,” he advised students in a message Wednesday.

Meanwhile at Georgia Tech, which reported 544 positive cases in August, its president announced plans this week encouraging students who share a room to move into a single room to slow the spread of the disease.

Both schools are worried about an increase in cases after Labor Day, since there will be no classes for the holiday. Travel and gatherings over Memorial Day weekend contributed to Georgia’s summertime surge in coronavirus cases, a new report released this week found.

Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera advised students not to travel.

“I encourage you to find ways to stay connected — just a little farther apart,” Cabrera said.

The two schools, and two others — Georgia College in Milledgeville and Georgia Southern in Statesboro — each reported more than 500 positive cases in August. The numbers do not detail the severity of the cases. The schools stress that many of the cases were self-reported.

State public health data shows high case numbers in the counties surrounding the schools — particularly Baldwin and Bulloch, where Georgia College and Georgia Southern, respectively, have campuses. Experts warn the virus easily spreads into older and more vulnerable populations. Baldwin and Bulloch have smaller populations, and some worry about the surge in cases impacting limited medical resources.

In Athens-Clarke County, home to UGA, the state reported a record 141 new cases of the virus on Tuesday, which shattered the previous record of 87 set just a day earlier, according to Georgia Department of Public Health data. Seventy more cases were reported Wednesday, and the county’s rolling average of new cases is at its highest point in the pandemic.

Georgia’s largest colleges and universities have reported record enrollments or new first-year students this semester, despite the pandemic. University System officials have received dozens of emails from parents and students urging them not to go to online learning. Many new students are living in on-campus housing where officials believe the disease is spreading like springtime pollen.

“The surveillance testing data we have collected over the past three weeks indicates there is a high risk of spread between roommates,” Georgia Tech housing officials said in one email to students. “When sharing a bedroom, we have found that one positive case can quickly and easily become two positive cases.”

At UGA, more students and employees are being tested on campus, and the percentage of positive test results has increased. About 5% of its 1,810 surveillance test results between Aug. 24-28 were positive, university officials said, an increase from 2.35% the prior five-day period.

University System of Georgia officials highlighted some of the resources they’ve shared with its 26 schools to reduce the spread of COVID-19, such as 67,000 test kits to supplement supplies its institutions have.

“We are also constantly surveying and monitoring the testing technological landscape for new products, improvements to current products, FDA approvals, and any other developments that we could pursue if necessary,” system spokesman Aaron Diamant said in a statement.

How the schools report cases continues to be a concern. Students and faculty have complained that their schools are not sharing enough information about people who are in their classes who reported positive COVID-19 results, revealing the challenge facing schools in sharing information about exposure to the disease and abiding by federal health privacy guidelines.

Vanessa Banks, a Kennesaw State University senior, believes the university should share more of this information about the overall numbers, which on KSU’s website totaled 130 cases between Aug. 22-28. Without details from the school, Banks said that claims are being shared online that large numbers of students in specific classes have the disease.

“Students are seeing it on campus,” said Banks, who questions KSU’s numbers.

University officials have noted guidelines that any faculty, staff or student who is determined to be at a high risk of exposure will be contacted and instructed to quarantine. High-risk exposure is defined on KSU’s website as having been within 6 feet of a confirmed case for 15 minutes or longer.

Staff writers Maureen Downey and J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.

CASE COUNTS

Positive COVID-19 cases reported by some Georgia universities in August. Many of the cases are self-reported and not diagnosed by university health officials.

University of Georgia 1,074* (began classes Aug. 20)

Georgia Southern 579* (began classes Aug. 10)

Georgia College 576 (began classes Aug. 12)

Georgia Tech 544 (began classes Aug. 17)

* Georgia Southern began posting positive cases in mid-August. The University of Georgia’s totals date back to Aug. 10.