Officials from Pittsburg State University expressed optimism this week that the initial spike in COVID-19 numbers among students might be subsiding, but cautioned that it will require diligence and good decision-making by everyone to maintain on-campus operations through Nov. 20 as planned.
"We can’t let up if we want to avoid another spike and we want be able to stay the course," said Howard Smith, provost and vice president for academic affairs.
In the seven days leading up to Wednesday, 72 students were tested at the Bryant Student Health Center — down from 154 last week. Of those, 48 tested positive. Isolation numbers were lower by almost half compared to last week, going from 101 to 56, and quarantine numbers were down by about 100.
"The number of students coming out of isolation is higher than the number going in, and the demand for testing is down at BSHC," said Taylor Panczer, COVID-19 case manager for PSU. "These are good indicators that the initial spike might be subsiding, though we continue our work with the Crawford County Health Department to carefully monitor this on a daily basis."
Of approximately 1,000 faculty and staff members, two were in isolation and five were in quarantine due to potential exposure. Since the university began tracking in March, four faculty and staff members have reported infections, and 28 have had to quarantine.
The only testing and positive case numbers the university can reliably report are those from the Bryant Student Health Center; other positive numbers in Crawford County are reported by the county health department. Isolation and quarantine numbers will differ, due to students being tested elsewhere and then later reporting as PSU students via the health department.
PSU is closely following CDC guidelines for testing, which are to test only symptomatic individuals, and in some cases asymptomatic close contacts.
"Mass entry testing and ongoing voluntary spot testing have not been studied enough to determine if they are effective strategies," said Dr. Kathleen Sandness, medical director of the Bryant Student Health Center. "Our testing practices are part of an overall containment strategy. Testing is an important part of it, though not the only part. Contact tracing, our mask mandate, social distanced classrooms, increased disinfection practices, and limiting gatherings also contribute."
Administrators said no major and immediate operational changes are on the horizon; activity suspensions and occupancy restrictions previously announced are set to expire on Monday, Sept. 14. Should a need arise for those to be extended, the university will announce it on Friday, Sept. 11.
While the university keeps a close eye on numbers, reviewing them multiple times per week, other factors play an important role in decision-making, including the community’s capacity to respond to help care for the sick and to manage close contacts.
Currently, 57 percent of the university’s courses are in person; last fall it was at 85 percent. Smith said the university is striving to fully serve students in majors who need access to hands-on learning experiences in order to make progress toward their degree, degrees that range from pre-health to construction to automotive technology.
He applauded faculty and staff who have been innovative, flexible, and put in extra time to make accommodations. Some departments, for example, have opened up extra sections of labs in order to reduce the number of students in each, while others have created lab kits students can use remotely.
"We do not intend to close our campus again," Smith said. "We also don’t intend to move coursework totally online. But if we do, we know how to operate our campus with low density and safety protocols that help make it a low-risk place to work, and in some cases, conduct certain classes and labs while everything else is online."
Smith said he was proud of Pittsburg State’s response.
"We’re learning from others as we go along, and they’re learning from us. We’re listening to experts, and we’re weighing decisions carefully," he said. "In comparison to many universities, I’m really proud of where we’re at; we’re doing really good things here."