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Positive COVID-19 tests in spring semester pass fall total, administrators warn of possible new restrictions

Administrators on Tuesday warned of the possible future need for new campus restrictions or a move to remote learning, the same day that the number of positive tests Duke has reported this semester surpassed the total for the fall. 

In a video to all undergraduates Tuesday night, Duke administrators told students that the ability to move about campus freely may be on the line if the rate of positive COVID-19 cases remains high. 

“Put simply, we may not be able to complete the semester as we started. That could mean going completely remote. It may mean limiting campus access. All those things are real possibilities if we can’t stop the spread,” said Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education. 

“We have contingency plans where we would set it up that everyone has to stay in their room and can only come out to get food. We don’t want that. We don’t want that for Durham, we don’t want that for you, we don’t want that for the rest of the Duke community,” said Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost and vice president for student affairs.

Four weeks into releasing testing data for the spring 2021 semester, Duke has reported more cumulative COVID-19 cases than during the entirety of the fall 2020 semester. The fall semester saw 241 total positive cases between students, faculty and staff, as well as 26 cases from returning athletes before the semester began. Since testing began Jan. 3 of this semester, there have been 296 cases among students, faculty and staff. 

Virus rates across the country were much higher at the beginning of the semester than at any point in the fall, and they remain high despite recent improvements.

“We’re really lucky here at Duke that each student is being tested as frequently as they are. But, unfortunately, testing doesn’t prevent transmission,” Bennett said in the video. 

Campus density increased between the two semesters, with juniors and seniors being invited back for the spring. Duke housing was open only to first-years and sophomores, with exceptions, in the fall. 

“Working with our modeling team, utilizing national and local data, we anticipated that our numbers going into the spring would be higher than what we experienced in the fall,” Vice President of Administration Kyle Cavanaugh wrote in an email to The Chronicle. 

Despite yielding nearly the same amount of positive results, only roughly half as many total tests have been conducted thus far in the spring semester—88,757—compared to the 178,084 throughout the entire fall semester.

“Most of the positive cases we have experienced have been connected to pre-arrival travel. Fortunately, the comprehensive testing and subsequent contact tracing has allowed us to successfully manage cases to date,” Cavanaugh wrote.

Of the 199 student cases, 56 were found directly through entry testing. Seventy-eight cases were detected through surveillance testing, and an additional 65 students who tested positive were symptomatic or contact-traced.

In the fall semester, 26 cases were found through entry testing.

“Now the challenge will continue to be for each of us to continue masking, social distancing, using good hand hygiene and our related public health community practices,” Cavanaugh wrote.

Maria Morrison profile
Maria Morrison

Maria Morrison is a Trinity senior and a digital strategy director for The Chronicle's 117th volume. She was previously managing editor for Volume 116.


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