Isabella County, home to Central Michigan University, has declared a health emergency as COVID-19 cases continue to grow after large parties by students.
“We have seen a large increase in cases since students returned to the Mt. Pleasant area. Our investigations have shown that the majority of these cases had attended large social gatherings. Restrictions on the size of outdoor gatherings, along with other preventive measures will help us reduce the spread of this virus” said Steve Hall, health officer for the Central Michigan District Health Department, in a new release.
Central Michigan officials said they weren’t surprised to see the news.
“As predicted, the number of COVID-19 cases in the CMU community has increased as students returned for the fall semester,” spokeswoman Heather Smith told the Free Press. “Of the 54 new student cases over the past week, particularly concerning are pockets of positive cases and symptomatic individuals living in three houses off-campus. We are working closely with our health experts and local health department on contact tracing, which is critical for mitigating spread. In response to these new cases, we have strongly increased our safety messaging to students and are taking steps to proactively prevent further spread.
“As such, we support the emergency order issued by the health department limiting outdoor gatherings and will fine, and even suspend, students who host and attend large gatherings moving forward through our Office of Student Conduct.”
College aged men play beer pong at the Deerfield Village Apartments on Saturday August 23, 2020. (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)
Central Michigan President Bob Davies said in a letter to the campus the university was watching closely.
“Particularly concerning are pockets of positive cases and symptomatic individuals living off-campus — two in Greek-affiliated houses and one in an additional large house north of campus,” he said.
Central has now suspended all Greek Life activities.
Davies also apologized for actions he took recently during the welcome weekend of Aug. 15th and 16th.
“I am aware of the videos circulating on social media that show me engaging with students at off-campus parties, which may have given the impression that I condoned those gatherings. That was certainly not my intent. That weekend, I rode along with officers from the CMU Police Department and visited a number of gatherings to remind students to wear masks, practice social distancing and to celebrate responsibly. I wanted to reiterate that message as often and in as many settings as possible..
“Along our route, I was invited to throw a few bags of cornhole, and I spent a few minutes engaging with those students and reminding them to be safe. In retrospect, I see that my participation in the game — regardless of my intent — sent mixed messages about the importance of avoiding large gatherings, and I apologize for the confusion and concerns my actions caused. As a leader and lifelong learner, I will occasionally make mistakes; when I do, I endeavor to learn from them. As our students have asked of me, I will “do better.”
The order means the size of allowable outdoor social gatherings will shrink from 100 down to 25, while indoor gatherings are limited to 10 or fewer people.
At any gathering, social distancing must remain in place and face masks must be worn.
The news came the same day Eastern Michigan University, 150 miles south of Central Michigan, announced it would postpone move-in by three weeks and start classes online only.
Also on Monday, students began moving back into the University of Michigan, less than 10 miles west of Eastern Michigan. U-M and Ann Arbor police are set to patrol student-heavy neighborhoods to break up large gatherings.
On Thursday, police broke up large parties at Deerfield Village Apartments, just off the Central Michigan campus.
On Saturday night, a Free Press reporter and photographer checked around CMU’s campus but observed no large parties. There were multiple smaller gatherings scattered throughout the complex. Very few of the college-aged people at the gatherings wore masks.
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County data shows that in the third week of August there was a 350% increase in the number of COVID-19 cases compared with the previous week. That was the week Central Michigan students returned to campus. Central Michigan is running face-to-face classes.
During that week, 92% of reported cases were among those 18- to 24-years-old, the health department said in a statement. In the first two weeks of August, only 39% of cases were in the college student age range.
Central Michigan University students play basketball behind the Trout Hall dormitory on a warm night on Saturday August 23, 2020 in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)
Central Michigan has warned it will fine and suspend students violating orders, a note sent by Tony Voisin, CMU’s associate vice president for student affairs, read Friday.
After outlining what students are supposed to be doing — wearing masks and social distancing — Voisin addressed those students who weren’t.
“The majority of students are taking these responsibilities seriously; however, a small minority of students are jeopardizing their own health and safety, and that of others, with their actions off campus,” his note read. “Attending large parties and ignoring safety guidelines increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission for everyone who lives, learns and works on our campus and in our community. We will not allow the actions of a few individuals to jeopardize others, and we will immediately fine, or even suspend, individuals who host or attend large gatherings.”
David Jesse is a 2020-21 Spencer Education Reporting Fellow at Columbia University and the 2018 Education Writer Association’s best education reporter. Contact David Jesse: 313-222-8851 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterdavidj. Subscribe to the Detroit Free Press.
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