The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As colleges reopened, many more young people got covid-19, CDC reports

Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill gather in early August. (Ted Richardson/For The Washington Post)

Covid-19 cases surged nationally among 18- to 22-year-olds between Aug. 2 and Sept. 5, according to a report released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which urged young adults as well as colleges and universities to take precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.

Weekly cases among the age group jumped 55 percent across the country during that time and made up a bigger share of overall cases, according to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The agency said the increase in cases couldn’t fully be explained by ramped-up testing as colleges reopened for the fall.

The Northeast saw the biggest spike in virus cases among 18- to 22-year-olds, with a 144 percent increase. Cases in the Midwest among that age group also rose dramatically, with a 123 percent increase.

Also on Tuesday, a public university in North Carolina mourned the death of a student from complications that followed a covid-19 diagnosis.

As colleges across the country resume classes this fall, the incidence of virus cases is being closely watched to see if universities are increasing the spread of the novel coronavirus — and what students and school officials can do to try to prevent that.

About 45 percent of 18- to 22-year-olds are enrolled in college, according to the CDC. Colleges have crafted a wide array of plans, including efforts to starkly reduce communal housing, ramp up testing and persuade students to keep their distance from others. Some schools have seen case numbers in the thousands, while others report just a handful.

The CDC also examined the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which saw a dramatic spike in cases at the beginning of the semester. Communal housing and student gatherings both on and off campus probably contributed to the clusters of cases, the agency concluded in a separate report released Tuesday.

The swift spread of the disease at the school “underscores the urgent need to implement comprehensive mitigation strategies,” according to the report.

The CDC did not name the university, but school officials confirmed Wednesday that it was UNC-Chapel Hill.

Universities should take enhanced precautions to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, the agency recommended, including reducing the number of people living in dorms, ensuring people are complying with public health guidelines, increasing testing for the virus and discouraging students from gathering in groups.

Preventing spread of the coronavirus at universities “presents a unique set of challenges because of the presence of congregate living settings and difficulty limiting socialization and group gatherings,” the report noted.

After months of planning and billions in spending, will colleges’ virus prevention efforts get trashed by a few student parties?

Very little data was available before August about the coronavirus at universities, since most schools shut down abruptly last March, sending students home to finish spring classes online. In August some universities reopened dorms and classrooms to a certain extent, providing a glimpse of what could happen.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, the start of the school year in August looked very different from normal, with students in masks, much of the instruction online and many fewer students in dorms. Still, 5,800 students lived on campus, and many more lived nearby in and around Chapel Hill.

And just a week after classes began, faced with a spike in cases among students at three dorms and a fraternity house, school officials announced a reversal and implementation of all-virtual instruction.

UNC-Chapel Hill pivots to remote teaching after coronavirus spreads among students during first week of class

“As one of the first universities to open and face challenges, we wanted to share the information gained from our COVID-19 experience with other universities to learn from,” Audrey E. Pettifor, an epidemiologist at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill and one of the authors of the CDC report, said in a written statement Wednesday. “Clearly this pattern of universities opening and then seeing infections is taking place across the country.”

“Working closely with campus health, UNC faculty, UNC hospitals, Orange County Health Department, the North Carolina State Health Department and the CDC is an important part of learning in situations like this,” the statement said. “As a result we are building stronger systems for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and future pandemics.”

A spokesman for North Carolina State University, which executed a similarly abrupt pivot days after UNC amid rising numbers of coronavirus cases on campus, did not immediately respond to a respond to a request for comment.

On Tuesday, the chancellor of Appalachian State University in western North Carolina announced that a student, Chad Dorrill, had died after suffering from complications of covid-19. His family told the university he had been diagnosed with the coronavirus this month while taking online classes and living off campus near school, went home to recover but suffered complications after returning to Boone, N.C., where the school is located.

“His family’s wishes are for the university to share a common call to action,” Sheri Everts, Appalachian State’s chancellor, said in a statement, “so our entire campus community recognizes the importance of following COVID-19 safety protocols and guidelines.”

University of North Carolina System President Peter Hans echoed Everts’s call to remain vigilant with safety behaviors. “Any loss of life is a tragedy,” Hans said in a statement, “but the grief cuts especially deep as we mourn a young man who had so much life ahead.”

Everts said many had told the student’s family that “I wear my mask for Chad.” “Please let us all honor Chad and his contributions” Everts wrote, “by taking care of ourselves and our community.”