New COVID-19 cases are increasing in Washoe County. And a chunk of those cases are occurring in the 18-24 age group. The number of new cases is 4.5 times higher in this age group than the other age groups according to the Washoe County Health District. The disease investigations and tracking show that many of these cases are coming from University of Nevada, Reno’s, student community.
A number of new cases from the student community are the result of people “going to private gatherings and parties,” said district health officer Kevin Dick during the weekly COVID briefing on Wednesday. They are not wearing masks at these gatherings “where they are right next to one other,” he added.
In the month of September, the university reported a total 313 COVID-positive cases. Since June 30, there have been a total of 371 cases from UNR, according to data reported Tuesday. Data released on Sept. 28 by the Nevada System of Higher Education shows UNR has the most number of cases among all of its institutions, including University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“We are overwhelmed with the number of new cases,”said Dick.
The health district’s contact tracing team is having to work 12-hour shifts to do contact tracing of new cases. “We are falling behind our ability to connect with people right away,” Dick said.
He also noted that contact tracing among the infected students presents another problem. Students “often don’t really know who it is they are right next to. So, the contact tracing is very difficult,” said Dick.
Within easy access to student housing on campus there are a number of pubs and bars in and around the university area where students socialize. Some of these businesses are not complying with all of the safety measures needed for safe operations. According to Dick, the city of Reno’s business inspections are showing these businesses as “problem areas.”
In an interview with This Is Reno last week, Dr. Cheryl Hug-English, the director of UNR’s Student Health Center, said she is aware of the gatherings, but she did not want to categorize them as parties.
“Whether it’s family gatherings, whether it’s off-campus parties, whether it’s getting together for a birthday party, for baby showers, for all kinds of events, [they] certainly promote the spread of the virus,” she said.
Mindful of how social gatherings and personal behaviors have come to be a matter of debate, Hug-English said, “There is no judgement or blame placed on someone [who has] tested positive with COVID-19.” The disease “is very contagious, and I think I don’t want to give the message it means that someone has done something wrong if they become positive with COVID-19.”
She also noted that gatherings are happening not just in the student community but other social circles.
According to Hug-English, the spike is “not terribly surprising,” as the cases might still be from the private meetups that happened during the Labor Day weekend when family gatherings took place.
New cases are something “our community as a whole is struggling with,” said Hug-English. “Washoe County continues to be an elevated level of a number of COVID-19 cases, and our campus is part of our broader community. So, our campus is not immune to getting cases as well.”
She also noted various mitigation efforts the university has been carrying out, including encouraging students to wear face masks, maintaining sanitation and social distancing, not having large gatherings and downloading the COVID Trace app to ensure individual and communal safety.
Health district officials, however, said the university and its student community may need to rethink a few measures and personal behaviors.
Testing everyone, even the asymptomatic students, would help, Dick suggested. Currently, UNR tests only the students who are showing symptoms.
He also pointed out that even though 75% of the courses are online and most students are not attending in-person classes, they are still meeting outside and socializing, potentially impacting the mitigation efforts.
“I think the best situation will be to have their students understand why it’s important for them to change their behavior to help reduce the spread,” Dick said. He stressed the university’s role in the messaging to students highlighting their personal responsibilities.
He urged the students as well “to understand the role they play in helping to prevent the spread of this disease in our community.”
Sudhiti (Shu) Naskar is a multimedia journalist and researcher who has years of experience covering international issues. In the role of a journalist, she has covered gender, culture, society, environment, and economy. Her works have appeared on BBC, The National, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Reno Gazette-Journal, Caravan and more. Her interests lie in the intersection of art, politics, social justice, education, tech, and culture. She took a sabbatical from media to attend graduate school at the University of Nevada Reno in 2017. In this period, she has won awards, represented her school at an international conference and successfully defended her thesis on political disinformation at the Reynolds School of Journalism where she earned her Master’s in Media Innovation.