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Coronavirus cases add up at Florida universities. How are they responding?

Among the state’s biggest campuses, Florida State stands out with higher numbers. Other schools have seen a smaller impact.

As college campuses across the nation become the new COVID-19 hot spots, with hundreds of positive cases reported in some places, Florida university officials have not been sounding many alarms.

Aside from Florida State University, where cases are climbing the fastest and president John Thrasher threatened Friday to suspend infected students who continue to socialize, the state’s biggest campuses have yet to see the huge numbers reported in some other states.

Not that the virus hasn’t made inroads.

Young people are the primary drivers of outbreaks in Florida as the recent drop in new COVID-19 cases and deaths begins to stall, according to state data. And while social media posts have documented large gatherings on some campuses, with few sporting masks, officials say they are also concerned about smaller get-togethers in residence halls or students sharing meals in close quarters.

“Cases are not something we’re looking at as a defeat,” said Dr. Mike Lauzardo, who leads the University of Florida’s Screen, Test & Protect initiative. “As expected, when you start to open things up, cases occur. ... Cases are going to go up. We’re going to manage and control them.”

That effort has taken different forms across the state. Here’s a look at the COVID-19 situation at Florida’s larger universities, and how those schools are handling cases:

Florida State University

The campus of Florida State University, where nearly 1,200 cases of COVID-19 have been reported since the start of classes. [SCOTT KEELER  |  Times]
The campus of Florida State University, where nearly 1,200 cases of COVID-19 have been reported since the start of classes. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

After starting its semester on Aug. 24, FSU has reported 1,182 cases. This week, 64 students were in quarantine or self-isolation in two on-campus residence halls, with an additional 24 students in isolation off-campus.

Since the school started testing on Aug. 2, its positvity rate is 8.49 percent.

During the first week of the semester, 11 people were arrested at a house party held by a banned fraternity. Later, the school limited events and restricted access at Greek houses to residents only. Tailgating before football games, which was initially allowed, is temporarily prohibited.

On Friday, president Thrasher coupled his threat to suspend students with a call to action, saying the behavior of a few is “hindering our ability to continue the in-person experience this fall and the traditions we all cherish.” The notice followed posts on social media that said students who were asked to quarantine had attended last Saturday’s home football game against Georgia Tech.

“It just feels like I’m kind of realizing a lot of people lack empathy and regard for the greater community we live in,” said Molly Lavoie, an FSU sophomore who mostly stays in her off-campus apartment and takes classes online. "It’s really frustrating seeing the spike, and nobody seems to care.”

A Tampa Bay Times analysis found that 1,731 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in the three zip codes covering the FSU campus and surrounding areas since September 1. That translated to one new case for every 55 people in those zip codes — an area of roughly 95,000 residents.

Case records are sometimes initially assigned to where a person was tested before being updated to where they live, so some of the data could change.

Across all of Leon County, cases among 15- to 24-year-olds more than tripled from their prior high in late June. Visits to emergency rooms in the county also have increased this month.

University of South Florida

Students climb the stairs last week at Marshall Student Center on USF's Tampa campus. The school has reported 165 cases of COVID-19 since the fall semester began.
Students climb the stairs last week at Marshall Student Center on USF's Tampa campus. The school has reported 165 cases of COVID-19 since the fall semester began. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Since the fall semester began on Aug. 24, USF has reported that 165 students and employees — including 71 this week — have tested positive across its three campuses.

Those cases are self-reported by students, faculty and staff or those who test positive at the Student Health Services Center. The university does not report its positivity test rate, and said it cannot provide that data because it shares its on-campus testing site with Hillsborough County.

Soon, the university will begin testing 10 percent of the on-campus population at random and will provide a positivity rate from that, said Donna Petersen, chair of USF’s COVID-19 task force.

University officials declined to provide the number of individuals quarantined on campus facilities. But during a Facebook Live Q & A with parents this week, dean of housing Ana Hernandez said USF had 66 students in isolation in residence halls, a number she said fluctuates with people coming and going “every hour.”

During the same session, some parents complained that USF’s protocols for keeping students under quarantine were lacking, with little or no contact from the university and no food being provided for nearly a day.

Dean of Students Danielle McDonald said that students placed in a residence hall to self-isolate are assigned to a “care team,” which checks in with them daily and delivers them at least two meals a day.

She also said she is cautiously optimistic about the reopening so far.

“I feel like I need to keep knocking on wood every time I say this because I feel like I’ll jinx it and we’ll be setting ourselves up for a fall, but it is going well,” McDonald said. “It’s still not easy.”

She said each fraternity and sorority signed a pledge to abide by the university’s standards. There have been sporadic reports of large gatherings at off-campus apartment complexes, but McDonald believes she would know if more were taking place. She bases that on social media accounts that shame students who participate in those events, and on information reported through the university’s anonymous tip lines.

“We started a little later than some other schools, and they’ve seen what can happen if people do not take care of our community," McDonald said.

Petersen added: “We don’t have big parties or those super spreaders with massive numbers of people."

University of Florida

Century Tower rises at the center of the University of Florida campus, where just under 700 cases of COVID-19 have been reported.
Century Tower rises at the center of the University of Florida campus, where just under 700 cases of COVID-19 have been reported. [ University of Florida ]

Since the fall semester began on Aug. 31, UF has reported 693 new student and employee cases. The Student Health Care Center testing site has a 26.6 percent positivity rate.

University spokesman Steve Orlando said last week that 31 students were in quarantine on campus and 23 were in isolation. An additional 81 students were either quarantining or isolating off campus. Most, he said, went home.

In Alachua County, emergency room admissions have remained essentially flat since late August.

Lauzardo, the doctor leading the university’s screening and testing efforts, said the increase was anticipated.

He said in-depth contact tracing, including 30- to 45-minute interviews with each person who tests positive, has allowed the university to learn more about possible points of transmission and adjust its approach to the virus. Lauzardo said not much spread has been detected on campus or in classrooms; instead it has occurred in residence halls and off-campus Greek housing.

“We do our best to find where those cases are,” he said. "This is something to be managed, not something to be avoided. We lost that ability to avoid it once this virus left China.”

University of Central Florida

A view of the Student Union at the University of Central Florida, which has reported 199 cases of COVID-19 so far this semester.
A view of the Student Union at the University of Central Florida, which has reported 199 cases of COVID-19 so far this semester. [ University of Central Florida ]

The university has reported 199 cases since the semester started on Aug. 24.

Fifteen students were quarantined in residence halls last week, while the majority of those who were told to isolate returned to their permanent residence, the university said.

Dr. Michael Deichen, associate vice president of UCF Student Health Services, said most of the positive cases were coming through noncompliant behavior rather than community spread. Some students, he said, spread the virus by eating near others.

“Eating is such an important facet of socialization and something important we all need to do, but people are letting down their guard,” Deichen said. “We’re trying to make sure people understand the risk."

He said the university will begin targeted testing of certain populations — first fraternities and sororities, and later other groups such as dining hall employees and residence hall occupants — to see if they need to allocate more resources in specific areas.

But Deichen said he expects things to improve, and the university is preparing for how to disseminate a vaccine when it arrives.

“We’re hopefully in the sixth or seventh inning of this pandemic,” he said.

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