Pitt adds 38 COVID-19 cases since Tuesday

By Rebecca Johnson and Jon Moss

Pitt added 38 new COVID-19 cases, composed of 36 students and two employees, between Tuesday and Thursday, with 45 students currently in isolation. The University’s previous case report, covering last Friday to Monday, included 15 cases.

This is the third case report since Pitt moved into the Guarded Risk posture, which allows for most activities to be in person with virtual options and limited restrictions. Kenyon Bonner, vice provost and dean of students, said on Monday that he witnessed “deeply concerning behavior” last weekend with many large parties. Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office offered testing throughout the week for students who attended these gatherings.

The CMRO said in a Friday evening email that since Tuesday, the five-day moving average of new cases per day increased from 4.8 to 8.8. This is an 83% increase in three days, and the highest all semester. The CMRO added that while the “majority” of these positive cases were symptomatic, 13 were from asymptomatic students.

The Student Health Service will also be open this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and will offer testing for symptomatic students. The CMRO said it will announce more asymptomatic testing dates next week.

“It’s critical during the spike in cases to not make any new close contacts. That is how the virus spreads,” the email said. “Everyone has pandemic fatigue and is excited about spring weather — but we need to keep our guard up.”

The CMRO also said students must continue to practice proper mitigation behaviors, such as wearing a mask and social distancing. It said it is “concerned” about this increase in cases amid St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

Faculty and student government leaders expressed frustration Friday evening about the rapid rise in cases.

Chris Bonneau, the University Senate president, said the increase was “very concerning” to him and could threaten in-person commencement ceremonies planned for the end of the semester.

“We’re at the point where we’re so close to the end here, I think. Vaccines are ramping up, they’re effective,” Bonneau, a political science professor, said. “We just need to keep going with the masking.”

Bonneau said he doesn’t think Pitt’s recent downgrade to the Guarded Risk posture had any effect on St. Patrick’s Day parties last weekend, and feels that the maskless gatherings would have happened anyways.

“People are tired and people are sick of distancing and masking, and I get it. It’s been an awful year,” Bonneau said. “But it’s going to be awful for longer if we don’t continue with the mitigation strategies that we know work.”

He pointed to Duke University, which implemented a stay-in-place order last week due to a surge in cases, as a cautionary tale and something “not sustainable” for the University community.

Eric Macadangdang, the Student Government Board president, said it is “troubling” and “disappointing” that case numbers have risen so quickly. He implored students to take COVID-19 mitigation measures seriously, and Pitt to better communicate proper behavior.

“Students, please take this as an early lesson that the hope of a somewhat normal fall or a normal summer, the hope of in-person commencement, all of this is still contingent on behavior,” Macadangdang said. “And I would also say that our success also doesn’t preclude the fact that the University should also be acting in a better interest of students, whether that’s through policy or through messaging.”

When asked whether he thought Pitt made the correct move by shifting to the Guarded Risk posture, Macadangdang said he told administrators that he wants Pitt to “pay serious attention” to not just set guidelines that correspond with the postures. He said Pitt should understand the messaging switching postures sends to students.

“I think some stronger messaging could have helped mitigate against some people thinking that their behavior or their actions could be a little more lax,” Macadangdang said. “I really hope that the University considers all the options they have on the table for the rest of the semester.”

University spokesperson Kevin Zwick didn’t directly respond to questions about whether Pitt plans to move back to the middle Elevated Risk posture or stay in Guarded given the swift rise in case numbers.

“The Healthcare Advisory Group continues to monitor the situation and will make recommendations for a posture change as they see warranted,” Zwick said.

The Allegheny County Health Department and state health officials have continued to report high case numbers. According to hospital data compiled by The New York Times, about 82% of ICU beds in the Pittsburgh area are currently occupied, compared with 76% statewide and 70% nationally. UPMC Shadyside is at 89% capacity and has 21 ICU beds remaining.

The University has had 1,090 students and 214 employees test positive since June 26, with 1,045 students and 207 employees recovered thus far.

There are 45 students currently isolated at home or in Pitt’s isolation housing, which is reserved for those who have either a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infection. Pitt has about 300 isolation beds.

Pitt implemented a systematic, random testing strategy, which involves testing several hundred students each week on Mondays and Wednesdays inside Posvar Hall. Out of 333 students without COVID-19 symptoms randomly tested on Monday, one was positive. Out of 325 students tested on Wednesday, six were positive, and out of the 157 students tested on Thursday, seven were positive. These tests dramatically increased Pitt’s spring prevalence rate from 0.38% to 0.63%. The Student Health Center has the capacity to test 300 symptomatic students per day.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health has approved Pitt as a vaccine provider, but Pitt officials remain unsure about when they will receive doses to distribute. The CMRO said it’s important to fill out the vaccine survey sent in late January so Pitt is prepared to make appointments if it receives a supply.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher announced Thursday morning that the University is planning for on-campus, in-person instruction for the majority of classes as well as “the full range” of on-campus living and activities for the fall semester.

The University also implemented a variety of new policies due to the pandemic during the spring semester, though some community members questioned whether the safeguards are sufficient. Students moved into dorms in four cohorts, beginning in late January and continuing into early February. Students needed a negative COVID-19 test before moving back on campus. Faculty and staff also have access to mail-in tests if they meet certain criteria.

Additionally, students are encouraged to shelter in place at least seven days before moving in. Once on campus, students are required to shelter in place again for at least 10 days or until the CMRO announces that it’s safe to move about campus. Students may attend classes during this time. Pitt 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.

Bonner said student organizations who 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.