by ALEXANDRA RETTER
COVID-19 case rates are down substantially at local colleges this year when compared with fall 2020 levels. Some local leaders had expressed concerns before the semester began that there would be a spike in cases when classes resumed, as there was in 2020. Winona Mayor Scott Sherman said the return of college students and opening of K-12 schools was part of the rationale for his August mask mandate. Thankfully, the spike did not happen. “My overall reaction was, ‘This is amazing,’” Winona County Health and Human Services Supervisor Melanie Tatge said. “But what is the potential cause of this? It’s most likely due to the presence of vaccination.”
Higher education leaders said the pandemic situation has improved on campus and cited vaccination as a key factor. However, they also said they will continue monitoring case rates and keep mitigation strategies in place to try to avoid any winter spike.
Higher education leaders agreed that the pandemic situation on their campuses this semester has been quite controlled. “We believe we’ve been doing very well this semester, thanks in great part to our students’ compliance with our COVID protocols, thanks also in part to students, faculty and staff who have been vaccinated,” Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota (SMU) Senior Vice President and General Counsel Ann Merchlewitz said.
“We certainly had cases continuing and popping up, but this year, we have all of our on-campus classes and all of our employees back full-time on campus, and so far, so good,” Minnesota State College Southeast (MSC Southeast) Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Josiah Litant said.
“I think things on campus, all things considered, are going quite well,” Winona State University (WSU) Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Life Denise McDowell said.
To date, SMU has had five cases, compared with 42 at this time last year; MSC Southeast has had nine, versus 16 in 2020 at this point; and WSU has had 95, compared to 403 as of the beginning of October 2020.
Tatge concurred. There are fewer cases among college-aged people this year, she said, with vaccination contributing to that decline.
Higher education leaders also agreed that the pandemic situation on their campuses this semester is better than in fall 2020. “Most definitely, knocking on wood,” Merchlewitz said when asked if the situation had improved. She noted that at about this time in 2020, SMU began observing an increase in cases that resulted in a switch to online learning for the final part of the semester. “We haven’t seen that uptick yet, and we’re hoping that we won’t see it,” she said. SMU also has not seen an increase in cases this year following students’ fall break several weeks ago, she said.
“I do think things are going better,” Litant said. He feels positively about there being fewer cases this year though more people are back on campus, he said, as well as fewer people needing to quarantine if exposed due to many being vaccinated.
McDowell said the situation has gotten better, as there were more online courses and fewer students living in residential halls last year. “We have vaccines now that are part of that mitigation strategy. We’re still wearing masks indoors … but for the most part, how we move is much different than the fall of 2020,” she said.
Leaders said vaccinations have helped. The COVID situation on campus has improved due to universal masking, social distancing and a vaccination requirement, Merchlewitz said. “I think vaccines are the number one reason,” Litant said of why the situation has improved. He added that masking is valuable, as well. McDowell agreed that mitigation strategies have helped decrease the number of cases.
“I think the largest component … is the available COVID-19 vaccines,” Tatge said. “It is showing that it’s working for that age population.”
Colleges will keep track of case rates and watch for any spikes as winter approaches, higher education leaders said.
Litant said MSC Southeast is keeping an eye on the pandemic’s effects that go beyond case rates, such as lost employment. They have seen an increase in the use of their food pantry and anticipate federal relief to be disbursed soon, he said. “The economic impacts of COVID are still rippling through our society,” he said.