Nearly a full month after in-person and hybrid classes restarted on Northwest’s campus, COVID-19 cases are spiking in counties across Missouri, with average daily case totals increasing by nearly 16% this week statewide.
Several counties in the northwest corner of the state have been labeled as hot spots on the New York Times’ interactive state map, while some college counties like Boone County, where the University of Missouri sits, have seen intense increases over the last seven days.
Meanwhile, Nodaway County — which was designated a national COVID-19 hot spot just weeks ago — has seen its seven-day rolling average of positive cases drop from a peak of 29.71 to 5.29 over the last two weeks, as much of Missouri deals with a continued surge.
“All the ingredients were there for us to move up the charts, you know, for us to go right to the top,” said Tom Patterson, the Nodaway County Health Department administrator who fielded calls from the New York Times just last week as the county navigated its way through the worst of the pandemic locally.
Patterson said he was surprised to see the county receive national attention as a COVID-19 hot spot, even as he feared the worst was yet to come.
As roughly 7,000 Northwest students converged on and settled in Maryville at the start of the fall semester, Nodaway County averaged between 15 and 30 new cases every day from Aug. 24 to Sept. 6. Patterson thought the numbers might compound, with 30 daily case totals turning into 60 — a phenomenon that never happened. The county’s highest single-day total to date is 46 cases.
In the height of the pandemic in the county, much of the surge in new COVID-19 cases came from students and staff at Northwest, where there were close to 200 active cases Aug. 31 as Northwest President John Jasinski warned students that in-person classes might be suspended if mitigation efforts weren’t followed.
The influx of college students was one of the key factors Patterson described as an “ingredient” that seemed destined to catapult the county further into the pandemic’s grasp, with patients in the 10-29 age range making up more than 72% of the total cases in Nodaway County since April. At the start of September, nearly 70% of the county’s active cases involved Northwest students or staff members.
But now, after nearly a full month of classes, Patterson said the University and county seem to have a hold on the virus. The active case count at the University is down to 15, making up 14.42% of the county’s current cases. With 11 active cases among the student population, less than 0.22% of Northwest students are isolated with the coronavirus as of Sept. 15 — the latest available data at the time of publication.
“It really was dependent on student behavior,” said Mark Hornickel, Northwest’s communication manager who has been designated as the spokesman for the University’s COVID-19 response. “Again, we anticipated the spike. I think Dr. J’s message was just to … reiterate the expectation for students, that, ‘Hey, if you want to be in class and you want to be on ground this fall with us — employees do too — we need everybody to follow the mitigation measures.’”
Even after Jasinski’s email, which served as a warning shot to students after the University of North Carolina and Michigan State each sent their students home, both Hornickel and Patterson said they aren’t surprised that in-person classes have continued on Northwest’s campus.
Hornickel, repeating a sentiment expressed by University, city and county health officials since mid-August, said Northwest and its partners in the county expected to see a spike in COVID-19 cases when students returned but were confident in the mitigation efforts put in place, including the local mask ordinance, which was just extended through the end of Northwest’s in-person semester.
And Patterson, the leader of the health department that’s been worn down by the pandemic as much as any government agency in the county, said he thought cases on Northwest’s campus would have had to compound for more extreme mitigation efforts — like suspending in-person classes — to have been enacted, especially now.
“I think we’re past that,” Patterson said. “I don’t know. We’re a week into (cases declining). We’ll see. Unless things drastically change, I don’t see it going back to that direction, where that would even be part of the discussion.”
While the decline in active cases has come at the same time as a decrease in COVID-19 testing, Hornickel said the decrease in testing on campus has been a product of less symptomatic individuals. The Wellness Center has continued to test all students displaying symptoms, he said.
The county, meanwhile, hosted a community testing event Sept. 14 with the capacity to swab up to 400 residents. Patterson said roughly 225 residents were tested, though he said he wasn’t sure of the exact number. He said he expects results back Sept. 17.
As the county continues to report less than 10 new daily COVID-19 cases per day, Patterson said he’s thankful for the break that has come in the midst of September. He said the county and University appear to be “turning a corner” in their COVID-19 response. And while Hornickel expressed a similar sense of respite, he’s not sure the University is out of the woods, with another nine weeks of classes still to come.
“Sure, personally I’m (relieved),” Hornickel said. “We also know it’s not over yet. We have to continue following those mitigation efforts, because we very well could see another spike.”