Despite a surge in coronavirus cases at LSU in the first week of classes, the university’s interim president Tom Galligan said school leaders are nowhere near moving the fall semester back to fully-remote yet.
Galligan said in an interview the school is urging students to get tested, especially at residence halls where multiple people have tested positive for the virus, in hopes of stemming massive outbreaks.
But even with 182 new cases over five days, the school is not willing to end its in-person fall semester yet, he said.
“I’m not alarmed. Certainly I'm monitoring. We would rather the number is zero but we know that’s unrealistic,” Galligan said. “In the context of coming back and increasing our testing capacity we expected we would see more positives.”
LSU has seen “spots” where the virus has flared up, Galligan said, including multiple residence halls he declined to name. The university is urging people at those locations to get tested, and could eventually mandate such testing if they don’t agree to get tested, he added.
The surge in cases, coming after testing sites were down for much of last week, brings the total number of cases to 229 since students returned in mid-August.
But Galligan said the number of cases isn’t the only factor the school is considering when deciding whether to move classes online again. He said the school is looking at how often faculty and students are missing class, the capacity to isolate and quarantine students and the infection rate and other metrics in East Baton Rouge Parish, among others.
“I don’t think we will. But if the situation calls for it, we will go remote again,” Galligan said. “Everybody’s got to take care of themselves. If it spreads and it spreads fast, who knows, we could get closed quickly.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards echoed Galligan's comments at a Tuesday press conference, saying he is "concerned" but not alarmed at the rise in cases. He noted it is not clear how many tests were performed totalv– a crucial statistic in tracking the spread of the virus – because LSU does not release that data. The school says they don't have access to the information because many students are tested off-campus.
"It is not going to be possible to resume any activity ... and not have additional transmission of the virus," Edwards said. "I can’t tell you that number in itself shocks me.”
Only 10 students are isolating on campus and 13 are in quarantine, far below the capacity, Galligan said. That indicates the vast majority of infected people and their close contacts are isolating or quarantining off-campus. Louisiana has seen its case totals drop in recent weeks, though East Baton Rouge Parish continued to post the largest number of new cases over the last three weeks, according to the latest Louisiana state report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
LSU is among a host of universities across the country struggling to contain the virus, which spreads largely through respiratory droplets spread from person to person, during in-person fall semesters.
Many of those universities are going back to remote learning, deciding that it was unsafe to continue the experiment after seeing cases jump. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill went fully online after reporting 324 cases since February. Meanwhile, the University of Alabama is plodding ahead with its semester – while banning student events and clearing space for quarantine areas – despite confirming more than 1,000 cases.
Galligan said the school is pleading with students to adhere to health recommendations like wearing a mask, and said his trips around campus have anecdotally suggested such pleas are working.
“I think that urging them not to do big parties without masks, I think it will work. But we’ve got to get them to buy in. I think most students have bought in,” Galligan said.
“Don’t have a group of over 50. And if you have a group of 40, wear your mask.”