Pitt adds 46 COVID-19 cases after second week of online classes


Kaycee Orwig | Visual Editor

The Cathedral of Learning watches over an empty Pitt campus.

By Rebecca Johnson and Jon Moss

Pitt added 46 new COVID-19 cases, composed entirely of students, as of Monday’s weekly case report. The University has had a total of 96 students and 26 employees test positive since June 26, with 46 students and 24 employees recovered thus far.

Around 75% of all active positive cases are students who live off campus, according to a Monday campus-wide email.

The case report is the third since students began to move into on-campus housing on Aug. 11. The University has implemented a systematic, random testing strategy, where it has said it will test about 500 students each week. Out of 704 asymptomatic students randomly tested on Aug. 24, 25, 28 and 29, there were four positive cases, leading Pitt’s total prevalence rate to rise to 0.31%. This is a doubling of the 0.16% prevalence rate reported last Monday.

The most recent rounds of testing, with around 300 students tested, have around a third less students than the beginning test rounds of around 450 students. Pitt spokesperson Pat McMahon said the University’s testing program was designed to account for variations in the number of students tested, and remains “well powered” to adequately reflect the prevalence of the virus among asymptomatic students.

There are 50 students currently in isolation housing, which is reserved for those who have either a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infection. Pitt has a capacity of 179 beds, with the ability to add 20 more.

Dr. John Williams, the head of Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office, said the COVID-19 virus has the potential to spread quickly, but he thinks students have the ability to keep the University open.

This virus has a few tricks up its sleeve and is extremely good at spreading within a community. Williams said. “We believe in our students they are responsible members of the Pitt community and they care about the health of their friends and those at Pitt who are helping keep the campus open.”

Dr. Elise Martin, the associate medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology, said Pitt is seeing “several students with significantly more contacts than would be expected” and reports of “unsafe social gatherings.” She said early identification of cases will be “vital” going forward.

“This behavior is concerning, and if we don’t control the spread of the virus now, it may jeopardize the success of the semester,” Martin said. “Pitt is working really hard to take all the necessary steps to make the campus as safe as possible and control spread of the virus. We need all the students to take that same approach and responsibility, limit their contacts, avoid large social gatherings and wear a face covering.”

Eric Macadangdang, the president of Student Government Board, said the surge in cases was an “extremely concerning number” to him, though he added that he was not entirely surprised.

“We are about two weeks out from when a lot of students returned to campus,” Macadangdang, a senior, said. “That initial influx, you won’t see the numbers then, but it’s on about a two week lag and I think we’re starting to see that.”

Macadangdang added that he believed there isn’t “much wiggle room” for the community to maneuver.

“It’s gonna be extremely vital for everyone to make the right decisions now in the very short-term future to really make sure this curve doesn’t go off the rails,” Macadangdang said.

Pitt said now that the first phase of systematic surveillance testing is completed, it will transition to a twice weekly program of randomly testing students on Mondays and Wednesdays. The University will also provide an update on case numbers twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays, instead of the current weekly updates on Monday.

The University has implemented a variety of new policies due to the pandemic, though some community members question whether the safeguards are sufficient. All students are asked to shelter in place for seven days before and after arriving in Oakland, though officials have said that Pitt will not track whether or not students have completed the shelter-in-place period. Pitt has also planned testing of students to monitor the virus’ spread, required students, faculty and staff to complete COVID-19 training and imposed strict penalties for violations of health guidelines.

Kenyon Bonner, vice provost and dean of students, said student organizations that host a party or event can face suspension, and students hosting large parties can be suspended. Students living on campus who attend large parties can have their housing suspended for the semester, and students living off campus can be switched to persona non grata status, preventing them from entering University buildings or property.

Pitt has temporarily suspended nine Greek life organizations — a quarter of all chapters active before the pandemic — for alleged conduct violations. Pitt has also placed eight students on temporary persona non grata status.

“Your actions have consequences,” Bonner said. “If you want to experience campus life as well as in-person classes this semester, then support the health and well-being of the members of our community with your actions.”

Macadangdang toured Oakland on Saturday night with Dean Bonner and said while he has been critical of the administration’s decisions about the return to campus, this does not absolve students of responsibility for their behavior during the pandemic.

“I am fully supportive of making sure that this virus does not spread and if there are organizations, whether it’s Greek life or not, who it’s been confirmed that they are hosting parties or having large gatherings or doing extremely irresponsible and unsafe activities, you know, we have to get ahead of that,” Macadangdang said.

Although Pitt is implementing the new Flex@Pitt teaching model, which allows students to experience classes “in person, remotely, synchronously or asynchronously,” it extended online learning until at least Sept. 14 to allow for all students to start in-person classes at the same time. The University previously said classes would transition to in-person instruction last Monday.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in an exclusive interview with The Pitt News that a decision to move classes fully online for the semester is “irreversible,” and instead opted to manage COVID-19’s “highly variable” risk by adapting to the situation as it evolves.

“I can’t say what the whole semester’s going to look like because I don’t have any more information than the medical professionals do,” Gallagher said. “What we’re going to do is follow their advice and what’s happening at the moment. If the medical team is saying they can’t say yet, then we can’t say yet.”

Gallagher added that in-person classes are not out of the question, if health conditions are appropriate and protective measures such as mask wearing and social distancing are followed.

“There’s no reason to believe that can’t be done safely,” Gallagher said. “I think it is entirely plausible there will be in-person classes under the circumstances of our resiliency plan.”