A week after hybrid and in-person classes started at Northwest, and nearly two weeks after close to 7,000 students began arriving in Maryville in preparation for the fall semester, new COVID-19 cases in Nodaway County reached a record high Aug. 25.
The county recorded 29 new cases Aug. 25, marking the second time since the pandemic started the county has hit the record threshold and the fourth time in as many days the county has recorded at least 24 new cases of COVID-19. The 29 new cases — the latest data available at time of publication — is the highest single-day case number since the first day of move-in Aug. 13.
In the days after Northwest President John Jasinski sent an email message to students Aug. 21 noting “a concerning increase in students with COVID-19 symptoms” and warning students that the University might “soon be sending our students home,” cases have seen an intense spike in Nodaway County — one largely led by college-aged patients. There have been more cases in the past four days than there were in the first 114 days after the county’s first positive test.
But even as active COVID-19 cases in the county have nearly tripled since Northwest’s classes started and almost doubled since Jasinksi sent the email that served as a warning shot, University officials have been generally unsurprised by the jump in cases.
“We were all obviously aware that the number of cases would increase when the University resumed operation,” said Matt Baker, Northwest’s vice president of student affairs, who is a member of Northwest’s Crisis Management Team and who served as a University representative in a meeting with city, county health and Mosaic Medical Center - Maryville officials Aug. 25. “We all acknowledged that we were expecting an increase in cases. And none of us are panicked.”
“Nobody’s terribly surprised at the increase in cases,” he said.
Baker and the rest of Northwest’s Crisis Management Team, which includes Jasinski, meets daily to assess updated metrics and observe the latest on COVID-19 on campus and throughout the county, Baker said. Though most days, metrics — which trickle in from the Nodaway County Health Department a day after positive tests are confirmed and sometimes three to four days after tests are administered — don’t provide an up-to-date picture of the virus’s hold on the county.
While the University monitors the latest daily data release from the county — which Aug. 25 showed three total COVID-19-related deaths in the county and a record-high rolling 7-day average of 19 cases per day over the last week — Baker said the Crisis Management Team is more focused on how disruptive metrics might be to campus life.
At least 58 of the 165 active cases are Northwest students or employees, though Baker said a figure he’s more concerned with is the number of students and staff quarantined, and more particularly, how broadly the impact of those quarantines is felt. Since April 2, Northwest students and employees have made up at least 147 of the total 384 cases. As of Aug. 20, there were “several hundred” students in quarantine, Baker said, though he said he didn’t have a more up-to-date or specific figure.
But Baker said if an outbreak took place within Campus Dining’s staff or within the walls of the John C. Redden Jr. Power Plant — facilities that are vital to Northwest’s continued operation — “that’s gonna be a game-changer.”
That, Baker said, is at least part of the reason Northwest officials have continued to decline to declare a public threshold for cases or quarantines that might force the University to shift to remote classes.
“That’s why everybody wants the metric: ‘What’s the number? What’s the stop — you know, where do you hit the buzzer and say, ‘We’re gonna do something different,’’” Baker said in a phone call Aug. 26. “I’ve never been in a crisis where it’s that clean.”
In the Aug. 24 phone call between leaders and officials from the University, the Nodaway County Health Department, the city and Mosaic, Baker said the group discussed more extreme mitigation often requested on social media, including closing bars and placing caps on social gatherings, but none of those measures will be put in place for the time being. Still, Baker said, “everything is on the table.” He urged students, in particular, to adhere to the mask ordinance and social distancing guidelines put in place.
“We can do all the tests in the world,” Baker said. “But if people aren’t staying socially distant, washing their hands and wearing face coverings, it doesn’t matter if everybody’s tested everyday, it’ll still continue to spread.”
As cases continue to climb both on and off Northwest’s campus, Baker said less than 10% of the quarantine and isolation rooms the University has set aside in North Complex are filled, as of Aug. 25. Zero Northwest cases have been hospitalized, he said. Active cases among the Northwest community are showing signs of leveling off. And as the number of students resigned to quarantine continues to mount, Baker said his level of concern is “still doing pretty well.”
Despite Jasinksi’s warning that Northwest would “soon” send students home if they didn’t begin “adhering to basic mitigation efforts” and despite the flood of COVID-19 cases that followed the president’s email, Baker said there are no plans to change course.
“Do I think it’s possible? Yes,” Baker said. “Do I think we’re imminently there? I don’t have that sense right now.”