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More Than 20 SLU Students Test Positive For Coronavirus During First Week

Masked St. Louis University students walk to class along Father Biondi SJ Way on Monday, Aug. 17.
Kayla Drake
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis University students walk to class along Father Biondi SJ Way on Monday.

St. Louis University, one of the first colleges in the region to resume in-person classes, tested more than 3,500 residential students for the coronavirus during move-in last week. Before classes began, 22 students tested positive for the virus, SLU President Fred Pestello said.

University officials call the initial test results encouraging. They’ve altered classrooms for social distancing and have required masks on campus. But students and staff are concerned about a potential outbreak of the virus.

The university expected up to 2% of students to test positive, Pestello told students in an email Tuesday.

“These testing results are heartening,” Pestello wrote. “It is now imperative that our students actively practice our public health safeguards. ... The COVID-19 virus spreads opportunistically from person to person, whenever people let their guard down. We have to be vigilant — each of us, all of the time.”

Students who tested positive returned home or moved into quarantine housing on campus. SLU policies require students to isolate for at least 10 days, during which they can take classes online. The university has reserved 150 beds on campus for quarantine housing.

Contact tracers are working to alert students and staff members who may have come into contact with the 22 students. This could mean more students will need to quarantine.

Nine other students tested positive for the virus, but university officials said those students already “recovered from COVID-19.” It is unclear how many students are in isolation, and a university spokesperson did not respond for comment.

Some students question how long in-person classes will last.

“Students are not going to be able to really show up in person all the time, because inevitably they’ll have to get quarantined because of contact tracing,” said Anja Pogarčić, a graduate student studying cognitive neuroscience. “So I wonder if ultimately this defeats the purpose and we just should’ve gone all-online.”

SLU is sending students daily emails with coronavirus updates.

The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and University of Notre Dame in Indiana have already switched to all-online instruction after starting the semester. UNC-Chapel Hill reported more than 130 cases, and Notre Dame officials blamed off-campus parties for its surge in infections, reflected in a 19% positivity rate.

Doctors worry that the goals colleges have for in-person learning are too optimistic.

“As far as I can see, being a college student is living in a congregate setting,” wrote Dr. Elvin Geng, an infectious disease professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “So, it seems unreasonable that any congregate setting can expect to be confident they will not contribute to the epidemic.”

As more people move onto campus, SLU students are worried they could become seriously sick.

School officials have been careful to put social distancing restrictions and infrastructure, like a symptoms-checking app, in place, said Elon Ptah, who works in the St. Louis University Library. But he still doesn’t trust that all students will follow the rules.

“It’s as good as it can be in the context of a global pandemic,” said Ptah, who has one online class to complete before he can graduate. “[But] it all rides on the students. Maybe the administration was optimistic about that, but not many people I talk to have been.”

Once parents and tour guides left last week, he started seeing students crowd together and stop wearing their masks. He’s considering quitting his job at the library so he doesn’t have to stay on campus.

“I do not at all feel safe,” Ptah said. “I don’t think most students have this community mentality.”

SLU is one of the few universities in the region that has the capacity to test students on campus. The university is offering free testing to commuters, residential students and campus staff at the Student Health Center. Other colleges are relying on local health departments and clinics to test students.

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Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.