PITTSBURG, Kan. — Following a spike in novel coronavirus cases apparently connected to college students gathering at parties and bars, university and county officials on Wednesday urged the public to take health precautions and outlined new COVID-19 mitigation measures, while also saying they will do everything they can to prevent a new round of business closures.
Pittsburg State University held its first COVID-19 media briefing Wednesday, which had already been planned as a weekly occurrence as the community continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, but also came as county health officials warned that more needed to be done to prevent the student population from spreading the virus.
Later in the day, the Crawford County Commission met for an emergency special meeting where officials said they would meet again Friday to approve a new public health order.
"We have had essentially a doubling, a near tripling of our current cases in seven days, double within the last two days," Dr. Tim Stebbins, the county’s public health officer, said at the commission meeting.
Among the 18- to 25-year-old age group, there were 100 positive cases in isolation as of Wednesday afternoon, with over 400 cases of close contacts in quarantine, a rise from 34 active cases and 77 close contacts in quarantine on Aug. 17.
"The cases aren’t coming from within the institution 8 to 5," Stebbins said. "They’re coming from outside the institution from 5 to the next morning as the kids are moving and co-mingling and quite frankly partying, drinking, those kinds of things."
In response to a question from Commissioner Jeremy Johnson, Stebbins said the county health department was able to determine that bars and parties were the source of many of the positive cases based on its contact tracing efforts, adding later in the meeting that "the late night crowd, the drunken cohorts" were particularly concerning groups.
Stebbins stressed that if area businesses and institutions do a good job of complying with new restrictions likely to be approved Friday, they should not have to shut down.
"We’re asking the businesses to do their part too," he said, adding that restrictions under a new public health order will likely include requirements to wear masks in all facilities.
"If you have a business and you want to stay open, you need to require masks within your business," Stebbins said. Other restrictions will likely include stricter social distancing requirements and capacity limitations, and might include restrictions on operating hours if necessary. For now, Stebbins said, he is not yet in favor of a limit on "mass gatherings" of specific numbers of people, such as those that were in place in the spring.
"I want to make this perfectly clear," Commissioner Tom Moody said at Wednesday’s meeting, "the reason we’re taking the avenue that we’re taking is to keep from having to close businesses down, and we’re simply asking them to follow a protocol to curtail the spread of this virus, so I don’t believe we’re doing anything that we shouldn’t be doing for the benefit of the people of Crawford County."
Earlier in the day, PSU President Steve Scott opened the university’s briefing, detailing the current situation in the community, with the return of college students to campus seemingly causing a rise in cases in the county.
"I have been proud of how most of our students have responded to restrictions," said Scott, but he also expressed disappointment in the decision-making of some of the student body.
Scott noted that the university tested all students that were living in student housing, which resulted in a two percent positive rate, a number that the university looked at in a positive light.
"That was an encouraging number," said Scott.
With the rise of cases in the county, the university has put in place new protocols to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
One step PSU is taking is to suspend intercollegiate athletics activities, starting on Friday, Aug. 28 until potentially Sept.14.
Along with the suspension of athletic activities, university-organized extracurricular activities will also be suspended, as well as stricter occupancy limits put in place for the Student Recreation Center.
Scott said the goal remains to continue on-site learning, but that "if the current trend continues, then decisions will have to be made."
"We sincerely hope it does not come to that," said Scott.
"We have faith that our students will heed this wake-up call and take the necessary steps to prevent further spread that risks a shift to all-online instruction. We’ll also continue impressing upon them the importance of following all guidelines to protect themselves and others, as their actions have serious consequences for our community."
While Scott said that overall he was satisfied with the way Greek organizations at the university have handled the increased limitations, he did mention that there have been cases traced to an "ill-advised sorority gathering that we were not pleased about."