Officials from East Carolina University are pleased with their preparations for the spring semester as they continue to see a drop in case numbers and a growth in responsible student behavior, though the number of total COVID-19 cases in North Carolina have risen past 800,000 this February.
As of Feb. 19 there have been 523 total cumulative cases of COVID-19 at ECU since Jan. 1, and 449 of those were students’ cases.
Interim Chancellor Ron Mitchelson said he believes the university has seen success with the current COVID-19 guidelines set in place, and that the university has not seen a sharp rise in cases as they did in the previous fall semester. He said he had hoped to finish the first two months of the semester without a rise in cases and ECU has been successful in this.
“But what we have not seen is a dramatic surge, right, we have not. It’s nothing like the distribution of cases that we saw when we opened in the fall. I mean two weeks after we opened, it just broke loose, right? I mean we were hitting between 200 and 300 cases per day,” Mitchelson said.
As of Feb. 19, ECU has only reached 4% capacity in isolation and quarantine on-campus, according to the Return of Pirate Nation COVID-19 Dashboard. From Feb. 12 to Feb. 19, the dashboard said about 1,538 faculty, staff and students were tested for COVID-19 and only 33 results were positive.
Mitchelson said large gatherings have significantly decreased and believes students have taken responsibility to help stop the spread of the virus. The university will continue to have cases here and there throughout the spring, he said, though he is confident in the university’s plan this semester and how the results look so far.
“I mean I can tell you this, we’re not going to have to pivot. We’re not going to pivot fully online or anything crazy like that, we’re not going to throw people out of the residential halls, you know, we’re going to stay the course,” Mitchelson said. “We can manage our way through just about anything that you can imagine right now.”
Since the start of the spring 2021 semester on Jan. 19, ECU has reported 4 COVID-19 clusters, according to ECU News Services. A cluster was reported on Jan. 23 within the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority, on Feb. 3 within the women’s lacrosse team and two on Feb. 9 within Ballard-West Hall and White Hall. A cluster is defined as a minimum of five positive COVID-19 cases within a 14-day period by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, the ECU News Services website said.
As Feb. 19 marks exactly one month into the spring 2021 semester, the number of clusters that have been reported by the university is lower than what was seen in the fall 2020 semester.
One month into the fall 2020 semester, from the first day of classes on Aug. 10 to Sept. 10, ECU reported 26 COVID-19 clusters within the university community. The clusters reported in the first month of the fall 2020 semester included the Pirate football team, 10 residence halls and 15 Greek Life organizations, according to ECU News Services.
LaNika Wright, director of Student Health Services (SHS), said she’s excited about ECU’s COVID-19 testing data this spring. She said ECU’s COVID-19 positivity rate has stayed between 1-2% throughout the semester, and that asymptomatic positives have remained low as well.
The university has not seen a lot of transmission on-campus, Wright said, and most positives have resulted from interactions off-campus. She said SHS learned from the fall semester and has expanded COVID-19 testing for the spring semester.
“We (the university) have really tried to make testing available, and I think one of things you’ll hear the three of us (Wright, Hardy, Thorn) say often is that we’re trying to make testing a part of ECU culture. So that people know, it’s their responsibility to get tested to take care of their fellow Pirates,” Wright said.
Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Virginia Hardy said overall, she believes the university has contained the virus quite well. She said this wouldn’t be possible without the compliance of residential students, something that has been beneficial to the university’s case numbers.
Hardy said single-occupancy rooms, reduction of classroom capacity from 56% to 32%, re-entry testing and the expansion of ECU’s quarantine and isolation spaces have all been helpful as well. She said if ECU sees a rise in cases, the university will get guidance from experts like the Pitt County Health Department and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) on how to handle outbreaks.
“I think coming into the spring semester, the university came in with a really solid plan. We tweaked things based upon the lessons we learned last semester,” Hardy said. “With that in mind, I think things have been going quite well so far.”
Associate Dean of Students Lauren Thorn said she believes students have begun to take COVID-19 a lot more seriously as they see the effects the virus has had on daily life. She said this has allowed students to recognize the risk of exposure and infection, and in some ways, to take more caution with their actions.
Thorn said the university has seen progress since the fall, and on-campus quarantine and isolation numbers have stayed below 25 throughout the semester. She said the low trend in cases has been a relief and that these small numbers can help encourage the ECU community to continue to take the virus seriously.
“It’s a huge step in the right direction. It bodes really well for all the positive things we see coming, just being able to maintain this as we look towards expansion, eventually, of being able to vaccinate and everything like that,” Thorn said. “So there’s a lot of things that we know will help us keep this on that path and be able to continue on the positive trends that we’re seeing right now.”