The spike in COVID-19 cases that throttled Nodaway County in late August and early September was driven, as University and county health officials expected, by an increase in positive tests among Northwest students.
At the height of the pandemic in the county in late August, there were 189 active cases involving Northwest students and staff members — a population that accounted for nearly 70% of all active COVID-19 cases in the county Aug. 31.
For nearly two weeks in late August and early September, the active case count continuously took residence in the 100s as the county’s seven-day rolling average of daily positive cases ranged between 20 and 30 for nine consecutive days from Aug. 26-Sept. 3. Visits to the University’s Wellness Center soared — up almost 260% from last year’s total in the second and third week of classes. Northwest President John Jasinksi sent an ominous email to students Aug. 21 suggesting they might soon be sent home if mitigation measures weren’t followed.
But now, as cases in the county have largely subsided, the demographic leading the fray in new COVID-19 infections has shifted from student-aged residents to adults over the age of 30. The total number of active cases among Northwest students and staff members dropped to 10 earlier this week and now sits at 12 as of Sept. 28 — the latest available data at the time of publication. The continued low infection rate marks the slowest week for new University cases since students returned to classes Aug. 19.
“I think with Northwest’s mitigation measures in place and with the city’s face covering ordinance, I think they’re working well together,” Maryville City Manager Greg McDanel said in a phone call Sept. 30. “We’ve seen those numbers go back down to the average that I think we were seeing prior to the students’ arrival.”
For nearly two full weeks, the virus has increasingly affected non-student age demographics. Since Sept. 19 — a full month after fall classes picked up again on campus — 56 of the 76 COVID-19 cases reported in Nodaway County have involved residents over the age of 30, a total of 74%.
In the same time frame, active cases in the county have mostly remained level. There have been as many as 72 and as few as 50 active cases in Nodaway County since Sept. 19, though the current count, which now sits at 72, has ebbed and flowed between the two endpoints.
Meanwhile, the active case count among Northwest staff and students has dropped from 21, where it was Sept. 19, to 12, where it is now, while the seven-day rolling average for new daily cases for all of Nodaway County has risen slightly, from 5.86 to 8.57.
“When you go back to the data, I think we’ve averaged between three and seven new positive cases (per day) as far as Nodaway County and community members, with taking the students out of the equation,” McDanel said. “I think we’ve averaged that since the face covering (ordinance) went into place, roughly. But we’re concerned with any positive case, any age. Yes, there are some ages and preexisting conditions that cause more health issues when they’re COVID-19 positive, but we’re concerned with every age.”
The latest trend is a complete reversal from what the county experienced in the second half of August, as close to 7,000 students arrived in Maryville for the resumption of in-person and hybrid classes. In the week before Sept. 19, which seems to mark the beginning of the demographic shift, residents over the age of 29 accounted for 15 of the 47 cases reported in Nodaway County, a total of 35.72%. In the week that followed, the same age group accounted for 74% of new cases.
And the latest trend seems to oppose conventional wisdom throughout the city, where business owners have publicly wondered whether the economic impact of college students outweighs the health risk they carried into the city and where the Maryville City Council extended its mask ordinance to align with the end of Northwest’s in-person semester.
“At some point, personal responsibility has to step in,” Maryville City Councilman Matt Johnson said when the council voted to extend the mandate. “The most problematic age group — 18- to 22-year olds — there’s gonna be a huge sound with them leaving. I think keeping what we have in place until (Nov. 24) makes more sense than Dec. 31.”
In the meeting, Johnson, a history instructor at Northwest, was the one who moved to alter the proposed mask mandate extension from Dec. 31 to Nov. 24, when thousands of Northwest students — particularly those living and congregating on campus — will return home for the remainder of the calendar year. The council ultimately sided with Johnson, voting 3-2 to extend the face covering ordinance.
While it’s still true that county residents from 10 to 29 years old make up a large majority of total cases in the county since April 1, accounting for 64% of all cases reported, that tide has, of course, begun to shift. Northwest students and staff have made up 51% of the county’s total cases since the start of the pandemic. The same group accounts for less than 20% of active cases now.
“I think everybody’s doing the best they can,” McDanel said. “They’re doing their part to utilize the face coverings and keep those numbers low.”
Kendrick Calfee contributed to this report.