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Tuesday September 21st

Campus leaders optimistic as spring semester begins with lower COVID-19 positivity

Students study in Davis Library on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021.
Buy Photos Students study in Davis Library on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021.

In the first week of spring classes, 95 UNC-Chapel Hill students and employees tested positive for COVID-19 through the Carolina Together Testing Program — 40 fewer than in last semester's FWOC — as the University ramped up testing and began classes remotely.  

But with a positivity rate of less than 1 percent, compared to last semester's 10 percent, campus leaders say they hope the mandatory testing program and other policy changes will keep students in class, on-campus and safe.

Kira Griffith, a senior neuroscience major and the president of the Residence Hall Association, said one key difference between the spring and fall semesters has been the impact of formalizing student input.

She and other student leaders, who advised University administrators in an unofficial capacity in preparation for the fall, were invited by Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz to join the Campus and Community Advisory Committee in order to give formal student input for spring reopening plans. 

“One of the big things that me and other student leaders went into the committee thinking about was testing,” Griffith said. “How do we create a robust testing program so that we don't repeat the same mistakes that were made in the fall, when we had multiple clusters?”

Dr. Amir Barzin, working alongside Reese Innovation Lab Chief Innovation Officer Steven King and with his team’s HallPass web app, developed the mandatory testing program meant to answer that call.

In the two weeks since Carolina Housing move-in began on Jan. 13, 13,009 COVID-19 tests have been performed in Campus Health and Carolina Together testing facilities — compared to just 1,737 at the same point in the semester last fall. 

Barzin, who primarily serves as a professor in UNC’s Department of Family Medicine, was not involved in planning for the fall semester. But he said that, when called upon by University leaders to develop a testing program, he gained insight by communicating with the leaders of other college testing programs, including those at Cornell University, Duke University and Purdue University.

“When we started the fall semester, we were trying to learn a lot about COVID,” Barzin said. “What we had the opportunity to do in retrospect, as the semester was going on, the fall semester, was to look at best practices as to what was happening across the country at other colleges and universities.”

Barzin said, in terms of tracking and identifying positive cases early, isolating those cases and limiting the virus’ spread, the testing program has already begun doing what it was designed to do.

In the first two weeks of the fall semester — from the beginning of move-in — COVID-19 tests at Campus Health, which were overwhelmingly conducted on students who were symptomatic or close contacts, had a positivity rate of 10.4 percent. 

Over the same two week period this spring, data showed an 11.2 percent positivity rate for close contact and symptomatic tests and a 0.5 percent positivity rate for asymptomatic tests, which were provided through the Carolina Together testing program and residence hall pop-ups. 

This semester, move-in began with a reentry testing requirement. Other changes to residence halls, where seven clusters of five or more COVID-19 cases were reported in the first two weeks of fall classes, include single-occupancy rooms and overall reduced capacity.

According to Housing Director Allan Blattner, about 2,647 students are currently living in on-campus housing and Granville Towers — a 72 percent reduction in occupancy from a typical semester.

In a statement to The Daily Tar Heel, Blattner said violating University guidelines may result in students losing their housing contract. 

Barzin said his team continues to value student feedback and is looking at possible locations to add more testing sites as the semester continues. Barzin said he is proud of how UNC’s students have adapted while conforming to the new guidelines.

“I can't imagine and understand what it feels like to be going through a college experience during a global pandemic,” Barzin said. “I know that everyone is making the best of what they have. And I think that is extremely admirable.”

At roughly this time in the fall semester, UNC's testing positivity rate reached 30 percent, classes had moved fully remote and students living on-campus were asked to return home amid national media buzz.

But as she looks forward to her last semester at UNC, Griffith said she hopes for a smoother path for her fellow students. Her hopes center around following public health guidelines, staying safe and maintaining community: all while staying in class and on-campus. 

“I think the pandemic has really taught us that we need to think about how our actions are affecting other people,” Griffith said. “By just being responsible, not going to parties, trying to engage in social activities in a more responsible and safe way, everyone can benefit from having the chance to be on campus.”

@sclaire_perry

university@dailytarheel.com

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