KU chancellor: Collaboration, planning key to low campus COVID-19 positivity rate

By: - October 28, 2020 3:42 pm

University of Kansas chancellor Doug Girod says collaboration with the KU Health System, Lawrence Memorial Hospital and county health officials has been instrumental in keeping COVID-19 case numbers on campus to a minimum. (The University of Kansas)

TOPEKA The leader of the University of Kansas credits collaboration between school administrators and local health authorities, in addition to a comprehensive return-to-school plan, for the campus’ low COVID-19 positivity rate.

KU required testing for students and faculty at the beginning of the semester before shifting to random testing of the campus population. Administrators also implemented a campus-wide mask mandate, something KU chancellor Doug Girod said has been essential in bringing the campus testing positivity rate down.

Girod said in addition to successfully administering their safety plan, assistance from the University of Kansas Health System and Lawrence Memorial Hospital Health has created a safe campus environment.

“It’s certainly our university community making the difference, but it’s also our community community, so the relationships and partnerships have really been our key success,” Girod said. “It’s rare that you see somebody who’s not complying with mandates as you walk across our campus or through our buildings, so couldn’t be more appreciative of how the community really stepped up to do that.”

Amid rising COVID-19 numbers across Kansas, the Midwest and college campuses nationwide, KU case numbers and rates have remained low thanks to a “swiss army knife” approach, the chancellor said during a public briefing Wednesday with the KU Health System.

KU reports positive tests among both those with and without symptoms are decreasing. They have only recorded 21 positive tests over the last two weeks among campus testing activity, translating to roughly a 1.2% positivity rate.

That rate is well below the statewide positive test figure of 8.6% this month. It is also lower than Douglas County’s 14-day rolling positivity rate of 4.5%.

“Lawrence and Douglas County is a little beacon of hope in the state of Kansas,” said Jennifer Schrimsher, an infectious disease specialist for Lawrence Memorial Hospital Health. “We’re surrounded by a lot of areas that are lighting up, and yet our numbers have continued to decline, and we were actually able to move into the green for certain gating criteria.”

Despite these low numbers on campus and in the Lawrence community, improvements or modifications are still occurring on campus. Girod said he and his team are in the process of patrolling campus to determine which areas may not be as compliant as they would like.

Among areas Girod and his staff are working to reopen is Allen Fieldhouse. He said with proper adjustments and help from local health officials, Jayhawk fans should be able to attend basketball games this season.

Chris Wilson, VP of system integration and innovation at KU Health System, has been heavily involved in helping Girod virus-proof his campus. Beyond demonstrating the value of collaboration, the process has emphasized the need for a variety of changes, Wilson said.

“It’s a portfolio of interventions that we have to undertake. It’s not just about testing,” Wilson said. “Formalized settings are places where, with infection prevention practices implemented, they can operate safely. It’s the informal settings that we continue to see challenges.”

Wilson and Girod’s focus now turns to the spring semester. With students returning home to those informal settings and possibly to communities with much higher positivity rates, school leaders are working to determine what sort of strategy will be required when students return.

“As we head to these colder winter months, it’s the household where we are starting to see more of that activity from a spread standpoint occur,” Wilson said. “How can we emphasize not letting up on the good practices that have been adopted on campus as individuals return to more familiar and more informal settings in their homes and hometowns.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.