College campuses were among Colorado’s biggest breeding grounds for COVID-19 last year, but high rates of vaccinations and strict masking turned schools into relatively safe havens despite the new variants.
The University of Colorado in Boulder, for example, stood out as a hotspot in September 2020, when Gov. Jared Polis pointed to a 16% positive test rate. But now that rate has fallen to 2.3%, well below the statewide rate of about 8%. And the latest state data showed 216 COIVD cases since August, compared with 1,732 cases during the same period last year.
Health officials have reported few major outbreaks since in-person classes began this fall at 13 public university campuses around the state — sites initially deemed high-risk where COVID could accelerate and spread to society at large.
Now campus leaders say they’re confident facing omicron, and encouraged to see students back learning in person.
“When you talk with students now, they’re, like, happy – so happy just to be here,” Colorado State University vice president for student affairs Blanche Hughes said. “Even with their masks on, you can see people smiling through their eyes.”
Campus pandemic defenses depend, foremost, on the vaccinations required this fall. More than 90% of students and staff have been vaccinated at a majority of the four-year schools. At community colleges where roughly 95% of students reside off-campus, vaccinations weren’t required and rates are lower but generally above 70%. Colorado’s overall statewide vaccination rate, according to the state health department, is 63.6%.
Students who refuse vaccination must submit written attestations citing medical, religious or personal reasons. Schools conduct regular tests. Those testing positive are isolated, triggering contact-tracing to contain “outbreaks,” defined as five or more cases.
And mask-wearing is mandatory indoors with the exception of dorm rooms.
The result has been wide success controlling COVID at the sites that public health authorities initially targeted as hot zones. In the fall of 2020, Boulder County officials challenged CU’s decision to bring students back for in-person learning, saying off-campus parties were leading to rapid transmission. But now the CU-Boulder campus positive test rate is one third the 7.3% rate in the surrounding county. At CSU, the positivity rate was less than 1%, compared with 7.4% in surrounding Larimer County.
“Our campuses are some of the safest places in Colorado when it comes to COVID,” CU president Todd Saliman told regents in November as the Delta variant surged. “We need to keep up the good work. We are in a hell of a spike situation in Colorado.”
New restrictions may be necessary to continue in-person as variants spread. Colorado Community Colleges chancellor Joe Garcia, who oversees 13 community colleges at 40 locations that serve 100,000 students, said he plans to require testing once a week for students and staff who haven’t been vaccinated.
Pandemic protection is working on campuses “because we all feel we’re part of a community, a community of learners. It’s easier for us to see that we have a responsibility for fellow students and faculty members,” he said. “We recognize we are individuals. But we’re also in communities and that we owe our colleagues a sense of responsibility.”
State health data show six “outbreaks” of five or more cases on college campuses this fall. Most did not spread to more than five people, but one at the University of Northern Colorado spread to 17 students and staffers.
“Those colleges that have successfully vaccinated large percentages of students and staff, while also layering their mitigation strategies with masks, increased building ventilation and regular testing, have demonstrated how to successfully slow disease transmission,” CDPHE director Jill Hunsaker Ryan said in an email.
Campus pandemic defenses emerged out of chaos in March 2020 when school officials ordered students home. Higher education shifted to hastily improvised remote learning with many courses delayed.
But starting about a year ago, CSU’s chancellor Tony Frank, Saliman, Garcia, Metropolitan State University president Janine Davidson, University of Northern Colorado president Andy Feinstein and others began conferring regularly by phone, exploring best practices and fine-tuning protocols that, with some variation, became a common approach.
At UNC, Feinstein credits this collaboration with ensuring the most effective action.
A 100 % campus vaccination rate may be impossible but remains a goal and mask-wearing is imperative, Feinstein said. “It’s tough seeing half of people’s faces. I want to see their smiles. But we need to keep each other safe and this is effective in limiting the spread of this virus.”
Even so, COVID broke out in August on the UNC football team, leading to 10 student and seven staff cases — the most serious campus outbreak reported to state authorities this fall. UNC officials have since tried to make vaccination and testing on campus more convenient. They deployed a bus, positioned near crowds during football games and at different locations each week around campus. UNC’s vaccination rate this month reached 87% of students and 91% of faculty and staff. And, as the Delta variant surged, Feinstein welcomed an emerging trend. “A number of those who originally became ‘exempted’ for ‘personal reasons’ now are getting vaccinated,” he said.
In mid-November, UNC had reported a total of 12 student and seven employee cases of COVID. That compares with more than 130 a year ago.
When a Boulder campus recreation center outbreak was reported Nov. 8, the school’s system contained it to five cases, state health records show. Similarly at CU-Denver, an outbreak in the anatomy lab led to five cases. A similar CSU outbreak reported Nov. 3 was contained to 11 cases.
“Students really take to heart how difficult, challenging and isolating it was last year when we had to do all of our classes remote. We didn’t have any interactions with our loved ones and professors,” said CU-Boulder student body president Kavya Kannan, 21, a senior majoring in political science, economics and international affairs.
Wanting to be able to stay on campus motivated students to wear masks indoors, and even outdoors. “It does, really, feel safe,” Kannan said.
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