Cases on campus spike, level off in time for football opener
Less than a month ago, most Notre Dame students felt sure they would be sent home before finishing the semester on campus. When news broke that the University had moved classes online for two weeks of quarantine—during which no students living elsewhere would be allowed on campus—people flocked to the Huddle to buy Ben and Jerry’s in bulk and spent flex points with the reckless abandon of those who thought their days in South Bend were numbered. But just this past weekend, those same students flocked to the stadium for the first (physically-distanced) Fighting Irish win of the season. What changed? To make sense of all this turbulence, one can look to the COVID Dashboard.
Updated each day at 12 p.m. with the number of positive cases and, as of late, statistics such as the 7-day positivity rate, the number of active cases and total cases (further specified by membership in undergraduate, graduate, or faculty population), and estimated number of recovered individuals, the Dashboard foretold gloom for students.
News of the first active case was reported via email three days before the start of classes. As the Dashboard updates for the next few days showed a steep increase in the number of positive tests, a more coherent narrative explaining the spread began to take shape. An Aug. 13 email explained that the spike could “be traced to a single off-campus gathering” and that “individuals at the gathering were both outside and inside, together for some time, not wearing masks, in a crowded space, and drinking.”
At that point, the university remained unable to provide surveillance tests for members of the Notre Dame community, depending instead on contact tracing and symptom-based testing to stop the spread of COVID on campus. However, by Aug. 16, an email from the provost revealed a new system for students’ Daily Health Checks (one which involves the administration of a Red Pass A, Red Pass B, and Yellow Pass) and announced plans for surveillance testing.
The next day (Aug. 17) saw the highest number of positive tests to the date, with 102 new active cases— and still no surveillance testing. Aug. 18 and 19 followed with 89 and 92 new confirmed cases, respectively. Most of these cases could be traced back to a few off-campus parties that occurred during the first weekend of the semester.
When the number of total cases climbed to 140 on Aug. 18, Father Jenkins delivered a 5 p.m. address to the Notre Dame community via a live Youtube video, during what was originally supposed to be a Town Hall meeting. In this address, Jenkins—who declared that “our ability to offer a safe on-campus experience this semester [was] in serious jeopardy”—announced that all classes would meet virtually for the next two weeks (until Wednesday, Sept. 2). During this time, off-campus students were not allowed on campus, on-campus students could not enter dorms other than their own, and access to most buildings was restricted.
This impromptu quarantine seems to have worked. Despite widespread worry that school would be closed for the semester, the success of these rules—and the community’s willingness to follow them—can be seen in the same COVID Dashboard that first indicated the extent of the outbreak on campus. After reporting 82 positive tests on Aug. 19, the next two days brought 26 and 28 cases, respectively. From there, the numbers tapered off further. As of Sept. 13, there have been multiple days with one, two, and three cases reported, as well as one day on which there were no new cases at all (Sept. 12).
The decrease in cases is also likely related to the implementation of surveillance testing. Starting on Aug. 21, members of the undergraduate, graduate, and faculty/staff populations were tested at random, perhaps allowing the university to identify those with the virus who had avoided being tested due to contact tracing.
The university slowly came back to life. On Friday, Aug. 28, Father Jenkins announced via livestream a gradual resumption of in-person instruction. A follow-up email from the provost and Erin Hoffman-Harding, Vice President for Student Affairs, recognized that things were going back to “normal” but that many procedures and precautions still needed to be taken.
Perhaps encouraged by the success of these early measures, Vice President and Director of Athletics James Swarbrick revealed that students would be allowed to purchase season tickets for home football games. These tickets promoted the maintenance of social distancing by assigning students to specific seats next to members of their households (at least six feet away from all other students); in an added safety measure, students and visitors were barred from tailgating on campus.
This past Saturday, Sept. 12, student season-ticket holders filed into the stadium with their households, where they cheered and danced their way to a 27-13 victory over the Duke Blue Devils.
This first football game was a test. Once the weekend’s COVID test results are released, the administration will better understand the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the social distancing measures enforced at the stadium. In the four days following the game, there were 14 total positive cases reported to the Dashboard from Saturday, Sept. 12 to Wednesday, Sept. 16.
No matter what happens, certain protective rules will likely hold as Notre Dame mainstays. Before, throughout, and after the outbreak, the university has remained adamant in its enforcement of the following four provisions: that students all wear masks, remain physically distant from students not in their households, wash their hands, and complete their daily health checks. All four comprise the backbone of Notre Dame’s COVID-19 management strategy— the implementation of these measures, which have provided a level of continuity to the school’s approach to the pandemic, remains in the hands of students.
Sydney Missigman is a junior management consulting and Spanish supplementary major from Goodyear, Arizona. If she is not watching the sunset from her lake-view room in Lewis Hall, you can spot her sitting near the lakes or at the Grotto taking in the beautiful South Bend skies. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Nia is a junior studying in the program of liberal studies with minors in history and journalism, ethics and democracy. She loves running, cooking and watching the New York Giants lose every Sunday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org