NJ colleges see COVID spikes: There's more testing but things are also getting worse
Students reacted to Thursday to Monmouth University's decision to indefinitely suspend all fraternities and sororities. Asbury Park Press
WEST LONG BRANCH – Monmouth University has seen a steady rise in COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks that one college official blames in part on ramped up testing.
But the surge is occurring as infection rates have skyrocketed in New Jersey and nationwide with some of the highest positive test numbers since the pandemic began. State officials reported more than 2,000 new cases on Monday, the same day Gov. Phil Murphy issued new restrictions on bars, restaurants and indoor youth sports.
The recent Monmouth University uptick followed a major spike in cases about a month ago traced to an off-campus party. But since then, cases had dwindled prior to the recent surge.
The university’s website, which updates the number of active cases and students and staff on isolation and quarantine daily, showed infection rates have been going up steadily in recent weeks.
As of Tuesday, the campus reported 43 active cases, up from 10 just two weeks ago. At the same time, students and staff in isolation rose from 11 on Oct. 28 to 43 on Tuesday. Those in quarantine, meanwhile, had also jumped sharply, from 15 two weeks ago to 82 this week. The university has about 6,000 students..
Students in isolation have either tested positive or are awaiting test results because they have shown COVID-19 symptoms. They must remain in their rooms with outside contact only for food and medication for 10 days.
Quarantined students are those who are deemed at risk because they were in close contact with infected people or traveled to a state on the list of at-risk locations. They must remain in their rooms except for travel to get food and medication for 14 days.
University spokeswoman Tara Peters said the increase was not tied to any single event, claiming it was due in part to increased testing. She said no new protocols or restrictions have been put in place since the most recent update reflecting new restrictions instituted Oct. 21.
On Nov. 2, however, university officials announced that the campus would revert to all-remote learning after Thanksgiving and through the end of finals on Dec. 22. “It was evaluating the landscape,” Peters said about the decision. “It all kind of indicated that was the best decision.”
A number of other colleges around the U.S., including several in Colorado, announced this week they would end in-person classes sooner than they had planned due to Covid-19 increases.
Closer to home, Princeton reported a two-week surge in cases and the Princeton Health Department issued an advisory urging students to stay on campus during the Thanksgiving break. Meanwhile, Seton Hall University reported 38 new cases since the beginning of November, with 25 detected since Friday. That's higher than the 33 positive cases reported during all of October, according to the university's website.
Most Monmouth University students are living off campus now, but about 20% remain in student housing. Most classes are being held online-only with some in-person. Free testing has been available daily for several weeks.
“I think the more the university is testing you are seeing more cases. They certainly add up, but there is nothing specific that we would connect it to,” Peters said about a possible cause for the increase. “We have really ramped up our surveillance testing, I think more students are wanting to be tested.”
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She also cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently changing its definition of close contact, prompting more Monmouth students and staff to become eligible for quarantining.
In the past, a person was found to have been in close contact if they were within 6 feet of an infected person for 15 continuous minutes. Now if someone is within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative 15 minutes over a 24-hour period they are considered in close contact.
Monmouth University drew attention on Oct. 12 when it revealed that more than 200 students and staff had tested positive after being linked to an off-campus party. Just days after that revelation, Monmouth President Patrick Leahy issued an advisory urging students to maintain social distancing, masks and quarantine or isolate as needed.
In the days that followed, rates began to drop and reached a low of 10 active cases on Oct. 26. But the increase began just days later.
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Also seeing an increase in recent weeks is Georgian Court University in Lakewood. After reporting a low of three active cases on Oct. 19, the campus jumped to 19 on Nov. 3 and reported 9 on Tuesday.
“We cannot pinpoint a single cause, but these occurrences did kick our contact tracing plan into high gear,” Georgian Court spokesperson Gail Towns said via email. “We credit that planning and immediate execution by GCU Health Services with containing any additional spread.”
Both Jersey Shore community colleges indicated a minimal number of cases. With no student housing and most students learning online, Brookdale College in Lincroft had seen a total of 13 cases since September, while Ocean County College in Toms River had reported no cases as of last month. OCC officials did not respond to requests for recent information on Tuesday.
Joe Strupp is an award-winning journalist with 30 years’ experience who covers education and Monmouth County for APP.com and the Asbury Park Press. He is also the author of two books, including Killing Journalism on the state of the news media, and an adjunct media professor at Rutgers University and Fairleigh Dickinson University. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and at 732-413-3840. Follow him on Twitter at @joestrupp