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COVID-19 Continues To Affect Florida Colleges And Universities

The New York Times ranked the University of Florida second in coronavirus cases among campuses nationwide, as of Nov. 19.

As of Nov. 22, the 15-to-24 age group comprised about 16% of Florida's cases. The impact was evident in counties that are home to three of the state's largest campuses.

With over 16,000 positive cases in their midst, COVID-19 continues to be a major concern for colleges and universities across Florida.

When Gov. Ron DeSantis moved the state into a Phase 3 reopening in late September, thousands of bars, restaurants and businesses opened with few restrictions and at regular capacity.

That along with many college students attending house parties, packing crowded bars and not wearing masks off campus has only heightened coronavirus worries for everyone from elected and public health officials to faculty and administrators to friends and families.

The University of Florida reported having 5,293 COVID-19 cases as of Saturday. The New York Times ranked UF second among universities and colleges nationwide, as of Nov. 19.

“I don’t think most students respect the rules or care about the greater community,” UF student Carley Lustig, 19, of Philadelphia, said recently.

As of Nov. 22, the 15-to-24 age group comprised about 149,000 – 16% – of the 930,728 cases reported statewide since the pandemic began, according to the Florida Department of Health. That’s four points higher than the percentage of that age group in the state’s overall population.

The impact between Nov. 9 and 22 was evident in the counties that are home to three of the state’s largest universities: 1,109 residents in Alachua (UF), 6,016 in Orange (University of Central Florida) and 1,256 in Leon (Florida State University) all tested positive.

To reduce the number of students returning to UF after Thanksgiving, faculty were instructed before the semester began to not require any face-to-face classes or meetings after the holiday.

What follows is a sampling of how COVID-19 is affecting campuses across the state.

University of Florida

Data from UF Health’s Screen, Test and Protect program reported 159 positive tests out of the 8,307 performed between Nov. 17 to Nov. 22. That’s just 1.9 percent.

Greek-letter organizations have had higher positivity rates than residence halls at UF – and have been sanctioned by the university for not abiding COVID-related rules on campus.

Lustig, a second-year psychology major and a member of Delta Phi Epsilon sorority, said the state’s reopening plan has given UF students autonomy to make irresponsible decisions.

“Florida has been very lenient compared to other states, and I think UF students are taking their cues from that,” she said.

In contrast, said Hessy Fernandez, the director of issues management and crisis communication, many UF students are taking the coronavirus seriously.

“We are proud of our students,” Fernandez said. “The irresponsible actions of a few aren’t the norm. It is quite the contrary.”

Fernandez added: “We saw – and expected – the surge in cases that happened in September. Heading into the holidays and the spring semester, we will continue to rely on the guidance of our UF Health experts as well as state and local health officials.”

Lizanna Angeli, 21, a fourth-year health science student from Naples, said she believes there are two ends to the spectrum for how seriously UF students take the virus.

“There have been videos that have surfaced of people being interviewed at mid and they just have a blatant disregard for the situation that we’re in,” Angeli said. “But then I have my close group of friends and the people I associate with that I know are taking it seriously.”

Also a patient care assistant in a trauma unit at UF Health Shands Hospital, Angeli said her personal experiences have molded her beliefs about pandemic-related safety protocols.

“I have been cognizant about the virus because I am potentially exposing my patients and co-workers who are fighting on the frontline of this pandemic,” she said.

Florida Gulf Coast University

With only 475 testing positive among the 15,300 students at Florida Gulf Coast University, Susan Evans, its vice president and chief of staff, said she feels fortunate.

Evans said peer to peer education among FGCU students has helped keep the infection rate low.

“We know this is not fun, and we hate that COVID has hit at this time, but we have to stay safe and operate in a really careful way,” she said.

As one of 12 universities in the State University System of Florida, Evans said each institution continues to communicate with one another to combat the coronavirus.

“Even though we’re smaller than some of the other universities, we’ve all worked equally hard to do everything we can to have a safe campus,” she said. “We’re going to continue on the track we’ve been on, and we’re hopeful that our low rate will continue.”

Florida State University

In an effort to hold them accountable, just as university leaders have done elsewhere, FSU President John Thrasher said students who tested positive after socializing outside of their residence, exercising at the recreation center or attending parties must isolate or face suspension.

That may or may not have worked, but only 42 COVID-19 tests – 38 students and four employees – proved positive among the 3,077 administered by FSU between Nov. 15 and 22.

That low positivity rate helped lead Amy Hecht, the vice president for student affairs, to announce that the university would return student events to 50 individuals.

Not everyone on campus was impressed, though. Shayna Kaplan, 21, a fourth-year family and child sciences student from Boca Raton, said there was little enforcement for university rules.

“They limited student interactions on campus, mandated masks and provided on-campus testing, but it was not enough to stop the spread and it showed,” Kaplan said. “Once there was a big enough spike in cases, the university then began to threaten suspension, but it was too late.”

University of Central Florida

From when classes began in August through Nov. 21, the University of Central Florida reported 1,443 positive COVID-19 cases among its student and faculty. There was a spike shortly after the Phase 3 reopening, said Mark Schlueb, UCF’s director of strategic communications.

“We believe it is tied to bars, restaurants and large social gatherings,” Schlueb said. “We’ve continuously stressed the need to continue to follow these guidelines to limit the spread.”

He said while UCF doesn’t require testing for its students and faculty, the university started targeted random testing to detect possible outbreaks, starting with its Greek-letter organizations.

“We started randomly testing different groups who are at higher risk of contracting and spreading the virus,” Schlueb said.

UCF hired about 60 students as “Armor Up” ambassadors who have been “very effective at encouraging students to stay responsible” and follow its COVID-19 guidelines, he said.

Mask compliance by students has been at almost 100 percent on campus, Schlueb said.

“Before the fall semester started, we were concerned about how students would react to the basic rules,” he said. “It has been going extraordinarily well from our perspective.”

University of South Florida

The University of South Florida had 864 COVID-19 identified cases as of Nov. 19, according to The New York Times.

USF’s random sampling from the week ending Nov. 15 reported just three positive outcomes from among 98 students tested. None among 23 faculty members tested proved to have the virus.

Thirty-eight students were in isolation the week ending Nov. 22, USF reported.

USF’s strategy to detect the virus as early as possible includes a pooled approach in which individuals submit saliva samples, said Adam Freeman, its media relations director. If someone in the pool comes back positive, the group would then all be tested for COVID-19.

“We continue to emphasize that all members of the university community have a shared responsibility to act in ways that will keep each other healthy,” Freeman said.

Copyright 2020 Health News Florida

Franki Rosenthal - WUFT