COVID-19 quarantine space running out for University of Delaware students

The University of Delaware campus in Newark.

The University of Delaware campus in Newark. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

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This week, as recorded through Friday, 353 students at the University of Delaware have tested positive for COVID-19. That includes 105 cases reported Wednesday, 136 reported on Thursday, and 104 on Friday.

That weekly total is higher than last school year’s peak in late February when 324 students tested positive. It represents a sharp increase over last week’s 77 cases.

The spike is cause for concern on the Newark campus, but that concern is mitigated somewhat by the fact that 91% of students are fully vaccinated, which the school required for on-campus students.

Contact tracers have determined that cases are not predominantly being spread in the classroom, said the university’s Andrea Boyle Tippett.

“Faculty and students are wearing their masks in the classrooms; they’re socially distancing,” she said. “When the contact tracing is happening, we’re finding that the transmission is not happening in the classrooms. It’s happening at large off-campus gatherings.”

That led university leaders to send letters to all students, warning what would happen if the case numbers continued to grow. As students test positive for the virus, they’re sent to special on-campus housing set apart to be used to quarantine.

But as case numbers have risen, that space is full.

“The university’s isolation space is limited this year, just as it is at other colleges and universities, and it is now at capacity,” Boyle Tippett said. “So students at this point who are testing positive are being asked to return to their place of residence and isolate at home.”

Exceptions are being made for students who may not have a safe place to return home to, Boyle Tippett said.

The university is also asking teachers not to share information about confirmed COVID cases with their students. That has resulted in confusion for students about who is considered a close contact.

“Then you had full classes of individuals calling our health service, saying, `I need to be tested,’ circumventing the contact tracing,” she said.

There were also privacy concerns for small classes. For instance, if a class of 10 students was told someone in the group had tested positive, it would be fairly easy to determine who was quarantined based on attendance.

“You look at the empty seat, know who sits there, and say, ‘Well, now I know who has COVID,’” Boyle Tippett said. “So they asked them to stop doing that, and reminded them that the contact tracers would be in touch with the individuals who are around the person in the classroom and that everybody should be following the guidelines,” she said.

In addition to asking students to abide by social distancing and masking requirements at off-campus gatherings, UD has implemented new restrictions for guests coming to campus, including football fans arriving for Saturday’s home opener.

“Outside individuals who are coming to campus for events are going to be asked to either show their proof of vaccination or show a negative test within the past 72 hours,” she said.

Kids under 12 are exempt from that requirement but — like all others attending the game — are expected to wear masks at all indoor locations at Delaware Stadium. Though food and beverages will be served in the new stadium club, fans will have to take them outside to eat and drink.

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