Portland’s Reed College has only reported four positive cases of COVID-19 since it began its fall semester in late August.
The low caseload appears to be a trend at many private colleges and universities in Oregon, even as thousands of students have returned to campuses in person.
Some private state institutions associate these low cases of COVID-19 with high vaccination rates and close adherence to public health guidelines. Additionally, college administrators say they were able to learn what works by having at least some in-person learning throughout the pandemic.
“People, we’ve found, are very involved in our COVID prevention measures, and they take them seriously,” said Madison Riethman, COVID-19 response coordinator at Reed College. “I think it’s number one, the main reason we’ve had case rates so low.”
Reed’s four positive COVID-19 cases represent less than 0.2% of its student and employee population studying or working on campus. Reed also has no students or employees in quarantine on Wednesday.
Last year, Reed had one of the most intensive testing procedures of any higher education institution in Oregon, performing nearly 2,000 tests per week, according to Riethman.
Riethman said the school is not doing that level of testing this semester, but is still testing a few hundred people per week, via weekly testing of unvaccinated students and employees, as well as tests of ” random surveillance for fully immunized people.
“And any member of the community can come for the tests at any time of the week if they want to too,” Riethman said. “So I think we’ve really empowered people to make smart decisions. “
Riethman said testing in conjunction with the school’s vaccination rates – 99% for students and 97% for faculty and staff – made the campus a safe place.
Reed is demanding COVID-19 vaccinations, or valid exemptions, for students, but not for employees. Other private colleges, such as the state’s largest private institution, the University of Portland, impose vaccines or approved exemptions for everyone on campus.
“I think our success dates back to our vaccination policy,” said Herbert Medina, interim president and dean of the University of Portland.
According to UP’s COVID-19 data, 96.1% of students and employees are fully immunized. Medina said about 2% of the UP campus community has requested a vaccine exemption, and a small number – including a few new hires – have yet to comply with the vaccination policy.
UP this fall isn’t doing the kind of random “watch tests” Reed does. Instead, it’s among many other colleges and universities in the state that are asking students and symptomatic employees to get tested.
UP has also seen a low number of cases relative to its size: 33 positive cases since the start of the fall semester in August, or about 0.7% of the 4,300 students and staff spending time on campus. .
Medina noted the peak of COVID-19 cases in Oregon at the end of the summer, before the start of the semester, “but, with our high vaccination rate and our safety measures, we were able to navigate these relatively well. waters”.
Medina said most of the positive UP student cases were those living off campus, and Medina said “this is in line with what is seen in higher education.”
“We have had a few, very few students living in our residences [test positive], and we were able to work with them, take care of them, isolate them in a way that ensures the safety of the community, ”said Medina,“ by bringing them food, making sure they are always able to continue their life Classes. “
Like many other private institutions in Oregon, UP and Reed had classes on campus in the spring semester, which officials say helped schools get used to navigating in-person interactions during the pandemic.
“[Faculty] used to being able to teach with masks. Our students who were here in the spring also had to wear masks indoors all the time, ”Medina said with UP. “And, of course, it was a very different environment in the spring. There were no vaccines, basically almost no one was vaccinated. So we feel a lot safer this fall semester.
Medina said UP found no transmission of COVID-19 in its classrooms this semester, and almost no transmission within the campus itself.
For many private colleges and universities in Oregon also requiring COVID-19 vaccinations, there is an equally low number of positive COVID-19 cases: 43 at Linfield University, 36 at Willamette University and 32 For Lewis & Clark College since early August, and 15 for the University of the Pacific since August 30.
All of these schools have vaccination rates of around 93% to 99%.
Unvaccinated people on campus
Linfield saw a slight increase in COVID-19 cases at its McMinnville campus last week – 21 cases reported, up from five or fewer cases each week previously.
Through contact tracing, Linfield found “it’s clear this is linked to a small number of unvaccinated students and their roommates or other family contracts,” said Kathy Foss, deputy director of Linfield strategic communications.
Foss said the number of positive cases this week is dropping and the students involved have been tested or are in the process of testing according to Yamhill County Public Health recommendations.
Linfield is among Oregon’s private universities with a COVID-19 vaccine requirement in place for students and employees, with stipends for medical or non-medical exemptions. Linfield has an vaccination rate of around 93% for students and employees.
While all public universities in Oregon have adopted vaccine requirements, not all private institutions in the state have.
Some schools, including Corban University, George Fox University, and Bushnell University, do not require vaccination against COVID-19, but strongly encourage it.
Those schools all still have a relatively low number of positive cases – 41 in Corban, 24 in George Fox since the start of the term and 31 in Bushnell since August 1.
“Although COVID-19 cases in Oregon are still above the peak of last winter, we have had very few cases on campus,” said Brad Lau, vice president of student life from George Fox, in a message to the campus community last week. “However, as we start to spend more time indoors, the risk of disease transmission increases, especially for those who are not vaccinated.”
Although George Fox, Corban, and Bushnell do not require vaccination, they are still located in counties that have moderately high vaccination rates.
The return in person
With high vaccination rates and a low number of cases, some university administrators are looking at COVID-19 precautions they can begin to withdraw.
For example, last year and in the spring semester, students living on the Reed campus had to live in single occupancy rooms. Now, Reed’s COVID-19 response coordinator Riethman has said students can have roommates again, and there are more campus events for students.
“At the end of the [spring] semester, we were doing very well with COVID. We had a very low number of cases, but a lot of our students would just say, “This doesn’t sound like the college experience,” Riethman recalls.
“A lot of people felt isolated and somewhat lonely without a roommate, so this year we’ve been able to bring back a lot of those more basic characteristics to give people that connection that I think the pandemic has taken from so many of us over the course. from last year, ”Riethman said. “We had that extra protection from the vaccination that made us feel a lot more comfortable lifting some of these other measures.”
While not the typical college experience, Riethman said Reed’s somewhat face-to-face campus last semester was key to the college’s success this fall.
“I think we were really lucky to have had a face-to-face experience last year, although it was very toned down and changed, because it really gave us a trial period,” he said. she declared. “We reset ourselves rather than just going back from no student to all students.”
Oregon’s public universities closed campuses last year more strictly than most private universities, relying primarily on distance learning with only a fraction of students living on campus.
The University of Oregon returned to in-person learning late last month. He has reported 131 cases of COVID-19 in his campus community since the week of September 20, when he began his move to campus. Most of his positive cases involve students living off campus.
Still, that’s a relatively low number of cases, for a large university like UO. Positive cases since the recent tenure in office represent only about 0.7% of the total UO campus population, which is similar to the University of Portland ratio.
Even though UP saw hundreds of students living on campus during the spring semester and had a number of in-person and hybrid classes, Medina said many students and staff were still nervous about returning. on campus in person this fall.
There are approximately 1,800 students living on campus, in halls of residence, this semester. This compares to around 800 last semester. Medina focuses on the short term and what he calls a “successful” completion of a fall term in person “if everyone does their part” to maintain campus health.
Riethman with Reed noted that many private institutions that started school in August were at the forefront in figuring out how to handle security with the Delta variant, which she calls a “huge curve” for colleges to manage. .
“I think that’s just the nature of this pandemic,” Riethman said. “You think you’ve got something figured out, then something major changes and then you have to change with it. “