By Eric Stirgus, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga
The University of Georgia on Wednesday reported another significant increase in reported positive COVID-19 cases, a week after top officials there raised concerns about a rise in the numbers.
Georgia’s flagship university reported 1,417 positive cases between Aug. 31 and Sept. 4, according to a weekly update posted on its website. The university last week reported 821 positive cases from Aug. 24-28, which had been its highest five-day total since the pandemic began in March.
The website does not include data detailing the severity of the cases, information UGA and other universities say they cannot release due to federal health privacy restrictions.
About one half of the Aug. 31-Sept. 4 cases were reported by students who were tested off-campus.
The surge is clearly reflected in the figures for the broader Athens-Clarke County community. Clarke County is 23rd among U.S. counties for the most new cases per capita in the past 14 days, according to figures kept by The Associated Press, although the university says some tests may come from students and employees elsewhere.
A White House coronavirus task force report released this week showed that Georgia is making steady improvements in containing the spread of the disease, with declining rates of new confirmed cases. It places a focus on stemming the outbreak in colleges, recommending that Georgia schools beef up testing and urge students who are exposed to the disease to self-quarantine on campus rather than in their hometowns.
The university on Tuesday announced it is increasing its free testing for students and employees who do not have apparent symptoms of the disease, from 360 tests per weekday to 450. Health experts have said many asymptomatic people have unknowingly contracted COVID-19 and shared it with others.
Many students and employees have criticized the university for reopening for the fall semester and continue to demand UGA move to online classes for the rest of the semester. UGA reported 1,171 positive cases in the last three weeks of August, twice as many as any college or university in the state. Few U.S. universities have had more reported cases , according to published reports.
Other parents and students have sent emails in recent weeks to state officials encouraging the university to remain open and praising campus administrators for how the schools has operated since the fall semester began nearly three weeks ago.
In Georgia, the schools with the highest number of positive cases are universities with large numbers of students living in campus housing and involved in fraternities and sororities. UGA’s numbers are trending in the opposite direction of some universities, such as Georgia College and Georgia Tech, that had high numbers of cases in August, but lower totals in the last week.
UGA officials noted 99% of the most recent cases involved students. UGA’s Interfraternity Council fined one fraternity $5,000 for violating council rules requiring masks and social distancing during an outdoor activity, and for having alcohol on the premises, university officials told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Wednesday.
On Wednesday, the University System of Georgia, which oversees operations at UGA and the state’s other 25 public colleges and universities, released a statement encouraging local law enforcement agencies to enforce off-campus public health measures including limits on the size of student gatherings. An Athens-Clarke County police spokesman said Wednesday the department has actively enforced ordinances to reduce the spread of COVID-19, particularly at its downtown bars and restaurants.
University President Jere Morehead released a statement Wednesday that echoed his thoughts last week about the increase in positive cases.
“I would again remind students of their important responsibility to follow the rules intended to protect the health of our campus and our local community: wear your masks, maintain your distance from others, make wise decisions, and stay away from social venues where appropriate distancing is impossible to maintain,” Morehead said. “Each of us must make sound decisions in the coming days and weeks so that we can turn the trajectory, as we have seen at other institutions in the state.”