Faculty and staff driving COVID-19 cases at UNH

  • In this photo taken Wednesday April 6, 2016 students walk past the historic Thompson Hall at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. The water system serving the University is among more than two dozen in New Hampshire that have exceeded the federal lead standard at least once in the last three years. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

  • Students gather at a university-sponsored bonfire event on UNH campus on Aug. 26. The New Hampshire

Monitor staff
Published: 10/9/2020 2:23:53 PM

For weeks, administrators at the University of New Hampshire have cautioned students against violating the school’s COVID-19 safety policies. 

In a video welcoming students to campus, James Dean, the president of UNH, explained that a failure to wear masks could shut the university down mid-semester. 

Several other admonishments went out after students were seen gathering in large groups too close to each other.

Most recently, however, students aren’t driving the number of positive cases at UNH— staff and faculty are. 

For the last two weeks, the school has seen more active cases in staff and faculty than in students. Cumulatively, staff and faculty have had 104 positive cases, whereas students have had 91 cases. This is especially concerning given the ratio of illness compared to the size of each group, as there are about 10,000 more students than there are faculty and staff. 

The rise in cases comes after 12 staff members were infected at a cluster event related to the university’s Dining Services. In an email sent out to the university community, Paul Dean, the associate vice president for public safety, and Ashley Lamb, the acting medical director, said all of the cases involved in the cluster were staff members who “may have also had contact with one another outside of the workplace”.  

Tyler Silverwood, the student body vice president at UNH, said the narrative surrounding students at UNH has been unfair.

Early in September, a cluster linked to a fraternity party garnered national media attention. Dean quickly condemned the student behavior in a public statement. 

“Let me be clear: this is reckless behavior and the kind of behavior that undermines our planning and will lead to us switching to a fully remote mode,” he wrote in an email to students. 

For the most part, Silverwood said students have abided by the safety guidelines asked of them. 

“There are certainly exceptions to that, unfortunately, but the majority of students care about us remaining on campus and making the most of the semester,” he said.

Silverwood said he has a couple of theories about why the staff numbers have been high. 

Whereas students are largely insulated from the outside world, faculty and staff leave the campus every day and interact with those who aren’t necessarily tested every week for the virus. Furthermore, faculty and staff are only tested once a week (opposed to students who are tested twice a week), which could mean more people are exposed to the virus before they discover they are COVID positive. 

Others have suggested that there is an accuracy disparity between staff and student COVID-19 tests given that staff go to official testing sites whereas students submit self-swab tests. 

On the Covidatunh Instagram page, which students have used to air their grievances, one person wrote “Why are faculty and staff cases spiking? Are they not taking this seriously when they leave work?” 

Erika Mantz, a spokesperson for the university, couldn’t answer why the university has seen a spike of positive COVID-19 cases in faculty and staff. 

“While any positive COVID case is a concern, the university is identifying more positive cases as a result of its regular testing of all community members, not just those with symptoms,” she said. 

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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