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Ohio State Starts New Semester With Post-Holiday COVID Concerns

Ohio State student Ronald Raine, center, move into the campus dorms in August.
Darrin McDonald
Ohio State student Ronald Raine, center, move into the campus dorms in August.

Ohio State University starts another challenging semester Monday, with administrators once again going to great lengths to try to keep COVID-19 off campus.

Ohio State was relatively successful last fall in keeping student and staff positivity rates well below Columbus and statewide rates. In early October, for instance, Ohio State students living on-campus had a seven-day average positivity rate of 0.7%, while Ohio as a whole stood at 4.2%.

But will the university have just as much success in the new year, with coronavirus cases and hospitalizations still mounting across the state?

“We expect that as students return that there will be quite a few of what we call prevalent cases, meaning cases that are identified in those initial rounds of testing. That’s to be expected,” says Dr. William Miller, a professor of epidemiology in Ohio State’s College of Public Health.

Miller is part of two teams that are advising Ohio State on COVID-19 protocols, although he is not setting the school policy himself.

“The real question is how high that’s going to be, and I’m sure that’s going to higher than in August when students came for fall semester,” Miller says.

The expected increase follows an explosion in coronavirus case numbers in Ohio and around the country over the holidays. On December 11, for example, well after most students had left campus for winter break, Ohio recorded its fourth-straight day of more than 10,000 new coronavirus cases. Ohio again recorded more than 10,000 cases January 7.

While Miller says the university largely did a good job in the fall, they are learning from their first semester of dealing with the disease and making improvements. New measures include holding the first two weeks of the new semester online so students can mostly isolate at home and avoid everyone moving in at once.

Students who live on campus have also received a test to perform a test at home and mail it back before they return to campus, and they’ll be tested again after they return.

“The students who live on campus will have a test performed essentially just before they’re moving into their rooms, and then they’ll be asked to sequester in their rooms until the result is back, which is usually within about 12 hours,” Miller says.

When it comes to receiving the vaccine, most college students are near the back of the line – given their generally young age and level of health. Ohio is currently prioritizing health care and EMS workers, along with nursing home residents and staff, before expanding to the elderly and school staff in a few weeks.

Miller says students should be “fairly high” on the list to receive vaccine, but he says “I wouldn’t put them ahead of any of the groups that have started receiving vaccine, for sure.”

As for when Ohio State might be able to start lifting some of its COVID-19 protocols and return to a pre-pandemic environment, Miller says it depends on the pace of vaccine rollout.

“If we’re able to really reach a significant proportion of the population, then I’m hopeful that by the summer we’ll see things slowing down, and hopefully we can be back closer to normal in next autumn’s semester,” Miller says.

Steve Brown grew up in nearby Richwood, Ohio and now lives there with his wife and sons. He started his journalism career as a weekend board operator at WOSU while majoring in journalism at Ohio State, where he also wrote for the student newspaper The Lantern and co-founded the organization Students for Public Broadcasting.