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CORONAVIRUS

COVID-19 cases spike at URI, with 70 percent of quarantine space there filled

Most of the faculty, staff, and students at the University of Rhode Island are not yet eligible for a vaccine

A campus scene of the University of Rhode Island, in South Kingstown, R.I.Steven Senne/Associated Press

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — In the last two weeks, the University of Rhode Island had filled more than 70 percent of its quarantine and isolation beds on campus because of a spike in COVID-19 cases — at a time when most students, staff and professors are not yet eligible to receive a vaccine.

By Friday, the university reported that approximately 64 percent of its isolation and quarantine beds were occupied, slightly down from more than 70 percent reported Thursday. There were 573 total students, faculty, and staff in isolation and quarantine.

Dave Lavallee, a university spokesman, told the Globe that URI has consistently told students to limit close contacts to the people they live with. During contact tracing efforts, however, some small groups of students were found to be mixing with other households, and spreading the virus. In other cases, there’s been “predominant transmission” of cases off campus with fraternities and sororities, which the university is now addressing.

“We tell them that if they don’t follow the rules, there will be serious sanctions” on individuals and organizations, he said. “We’re conveying strong messaging.”

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A letter was sent to students early last week when the number of cases started to increase.

“We have learned that it only takes a little carelessness with mask-wearing and gatherings to lead to widespread transmission. As we look at other universities around the country, outbreaks have repeatedly been linked to instances of letting down one’s guard, such as joining a party or crowd, and not masking when in the company of those outside your household,” read the letter.

The spread at URI is also mirroring a spike in COVID-19 cases at other nearby schools, such as Providence College, which placed restrictions on students last month. In the beginning of February, Salve Regina University ordered its students to shelter-in-place and moved to remote learning because of rising cases.

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But while teachers and school staff in K-12 schools in Rhode Island can now schedule an appointment for a vaccine, professors and college staff are not yet eligible if they are under the age of 60.

Governor Daniel J. McKee said Friday that he had spoken to university presidents in Rhode Island this past week, asking them for a head count of professors and staff, much like he did for Rhode Island’s K-12 school districts. He said he would have to wait for the head count before deciding whether college faculty and staff would become eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. It’s unclear how long that could take.

Lavallee said Friday that while URI has not yet seen any cases spread inside the classroom, he understands that faculty members might be concerned about reports about increasing cases.

In the beginning of URI’s semester, Lavallee said some students were caught having large gatherings, though they were not as large as they would have been pre-COVID.

“It’s not like there’s 50 or 70 people all in one place, gathered together,” he said. “In normal times, we would be pretty happy with what we are seeing.”

Students at URI are required to get tested for COVID-19 at least every other week. If they don’t, there is the possibility of sanctions, which could range from a warning to a university suspension, said Lavallee. On Thursday, the university reported that they administered 7,215 tests in the last week, and identified 158 new positive cases — equivalent to a 2.19 percent positive rate, a slight decrease from the previous week’s 2.8 percent positive rate.

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“We also know they are tired of this business,” said Lavallee of the public health measures, but he said the university has told students to stay vigilant so that any “tough decisions” by the university can be avoided.

Lavallee said the isolation and quarantine numbers would have to reach 80 percent to 85 percent full, and other factors including positivity rate, testing and whether critical operations like dining or housing were impacted by a cluster of positive cases, in order for stricter measures to be imposed.

URI Health Services sent an email to students, faculty, and staff Friday afternoon that said university officials were in close contact with the state and continue to advocate for all members of its community to have access to a vaccine.

“Our current understanding is that the State of Rhode Island will offer vaccination to all college students regardless of residency status, but some students may be able to receive the vaccine sooner in their home state,” read the email.

“We are reminding all URI community members that campus housing is not a congregate care setting and, accordingly, campus residents are asked not to register for vaccination on this basis,” the email reads. “Any such vaccine appointments will not be honored and making such appointments delays vaccine access for those individuals who are currently eligible.”

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The news comes just a few weeks after the university shared preliminary plans for the upcoming fall 2021 semester, which includes having have courses predominantly in person, along with some online and blended courses that were available before the pandemic. New students will be living in double rooms and residence halls will provide opportunities for active engagement, as in-person events and athletics will likely make a return.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.