Kansas universities see jump in COVID-19 cases as students congregate

Kansas State University College of Engineering produced 3D printed nasopharyngeal swabs to fill supply chain gaps in the region (Kansas State University)

Ellis County is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases since students and employees returned for class at Fort Hays State University.

Although the university has mostly conducted testing on a voluntary basis, it has recorded 90 positive cases from a campus population of 5,200. That’s also more than half of the 179 active cases in Ellis County.

At the university’s student health center, testing is conducted for symptomatic patients. Results have been alarming as 33 of 56 have tested positive for the virus.

“We did not know what to expect because testing was voluntary, and like many universities, we saw a spike that first weekend,” said FHSU spokesman Scott Cason. “Ellis County health department has credited that spike to student activity and gatherings.”

Universities and colleges of all sizes across Kansas are seeing a spike in case numbers as students return to campus, due in part to mass gatherings at dormitories and Greek life.

Amid those campus clusters, Kansas hit record case numbers. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 1,564 new cases over the weekend, bringing the total to 42,162 statewide.

Gov. Laura Kelly says protocols need to be in place to prevent students who are mass gathering on campuses from spreading COVID-19 in their communities. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Gov. Laura Kelly said Friday if proper protocols are not in place soon, university students pose a serious threat of becoming “super-spreaders” for COVID-19.

College campuses are the perfect environment for outbreaks to occur, Kelly said, pointing to the University of Kansas, where the Douglas County Health Department quarantined 10 sorority and fraternity houses last week.

“We need to, now, move into prevention and make sure we have protocols in place and accountability in place,” the governor said. “We just can’t let this continue to happen. These same kids who are in fraternities and sororities or at mass gatherings at dorms are going back into the communities, and we can’t have them become super spreaders.”

KDHE will soon begin to report case data by school and university, said Kansas Department of Health and Environment secretary Lee Norman.

In a briefing with Steve Stites, chief medical officer for the University of Kansas Health System, Norman said he is closely monitoring this trend.

“We’ve already seen hundreds of cases popping up in college settings, and a lot of those weren’t locally transmitted. They were brought in from their communities,” Norman said.

At larger universities under the Kansas Board of Regents, cases are rising quickly. As of Aug. 27, KU reported 474 positive cases from among 21,719 test results, for a positivity rate of 2.2%.

The Greek life community reported much higher numbers. Of 2,698 tested, 270 tested positive, a rate of 10.01%.

Despite the unusually high positivity rate among fraternities and sororities, KU chancellor Doug Girod is optimistic the university can handle these outbreaks.

“The overall number of positive cases and positivity rate remain in line with what we have expected from these results so far and continue to align with what we are prepared to manage,” Girod said.

Kansas State University has seen similarly high testing returns. In the first week of testing at Lafene Health Center, there was an average of 13 positive tests per day, with a positive rate of 9.3%.

When testing volume expanded, positive cases increased to 35 per day, a positive rate of 19.1%.

“The recent outbreaks demonstrate the need for us to work together and keep lines of communication open,” said K-State president Richard Myers. “We appreciate the leadership shown by the representatives of these organizations and expect them to cooperate with our health officials. All of us need to work together to help mitigate the spread of this virus.”

Some schools, however, have chosen not to disclose all information to the public. Wichita State University is only reporting to Sedgwick County health officials. Hutchinson Community College only reports to Reno County.

The situations at most community colleges, private universities and technical schools around Kansas are a bit steadier.

Johnson County Community College only has three active cases. Highland Community College reported none. Northwest Kansas Technical College reported its first case on campus last week.

Flint Hills Technical College vice president of student services Lisa Kermer said the school currently has three active cases and seven in quarantine.

“Our cases have come from outside of campus, before school, not from interactions on our campus,” Kermer said.

Baker University, a private college, currently has 11 active positive cases among students and employees. Since returning to campus Aug. 20, there have been 24 positive cases.

In Northeast Kansas, Benedictine College performed a baseline test on all 2,489 students and employees returning to campus. Currently, the school has 66 active positive cases or 2.7% of the campus population.

“Before we brought everyone to campus, we were told by medical professionals to expect 1% to 3% of the population would be positive. We are within that range,” said Benedictine College spokesman Steve Johnson. “Now, we need to work to bring it down some.”