"Wear a Mask" Uptown sign

A roadsign on Court Street. Photo by Ben Peters

By Ben Peters

Athens NEWS Associate Editor

Ohio University’s fall semester is coming to a close and many students are packing their bags to leave town for the holidays. But the Athens City-County Health department doesn’t anticipate a significant decline in COVID-19 cases — even with the likely widespread absence of a demographic that’s made up the lion’s share of infections in the county.

In-person classes at OU ended Friday, and most students who live in dorms will have moved out of town by early next week and won’t return until at least January for spring semester.

Jack Pepper, administrator of the health department, said the department is unsure of off-campus students’ housing plans for the coming months. Dr. Gillian Ice, special assistant to OU President Duane Nellis for public health operations and a Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine faculty member, echoed a similar sentiment.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many off-campus students, some who lived in Athens through the summer, also plan to leave town within the week for the holidays and won’t return until January.

Historically, students with access to off-campus housing largely leave Athens for winter break, but some may stick around this year for fear of exposing family to the virus or for other personal reasons. A small number have on-campus activities related to their academic programs, such as nursing and aviation, that require them to remain in town, Ice said.

“Regardless, our messaging will not change, we must continue to practice the public health COVID-19 safety protocols suggested by the Center for Disease Control and the Ohio Department of Health to prevent the spread of disease in our community,” Pepper said.

Winfried Just, an OU professor who studies the transmission of infectious diseases, agreed with the health department’s calculus, predicting that case numbers in the county will initially remain steady in the weeks following students’ departures because of community spread, and will likely spike following Thanksgiving because of anticipated widespread travel.

Although he’s optimistic that with proper precautions, like masking and social distancing, that Athens County can bring potential case clusters under control like it has in the past. Following a spike in July, cases shrunk to almost nothing in the weeks leading up to students’ arrival in late August.

Ice said she also fears a surge is likely following Thanksgiving and the holidays because many community members still plan to celebrate in unsafe ways.

“Being safe now not only protects our communities and loved ones, but it also directly impacts the ability of all universities to return to normal,” she wrote in her weekly public health update.

OU, which has conducted asymptomatic testing in partnership with CVS Health for months, plans to continue testing into early next week for off-campus students who will have not yet left town. Students who remain in town for their academic programs will also have testing opportunities after Thanksgiving, Ice said.

People in older age demographics continue to fall ill from the virus, and small numbers of them have recently become hospitalized. Pepper previously said community spread in the county among older demographics couldn’t be traced back to student activity.

Just declared OU’s efforts to contain the virus’ spread on campus a success. Despite a few instances of entire residence halls being placed under lockdown, there was never a point where isolation or quarantine space reached capacity, something university leaders over the summer feared would happen. And the university never was forced to send students home.

For much of the semester Athens County remained Level 2, or orange, in the Ohio Department of Health’s Public Health Advisory System despite the disproportionally large numbers of cases among students, largely because of the relative lack of hospitalizations.

“We made it,” Just said.

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