James Madison University announced Tuesday that there are 23 self-reported positive cases among students and six among faculty but that due to patient privacy laws, the school can’t verify those tests.
Four additional students have tested positive through the University Health Center since July 1 — three were athletes who are asymptomatic — bringing the total to 33 cases the day before classes start on Wednesday and four days after freshman move-in.
Shortly after posting its dashboard Tuesday afternoon, JMU adjusted the self-reported faculty numbers from 6 to 1. JMU spokesperson Caitlyn Read said this was due to five faculty self-reporting a positive before Aug. 17, the first day student self-reports came in. There have been 24 total since and at least one self-reported positive each day.
“There are decisions that are going to have to be made in real time with the available data as to whether or not we keep students in place or go fully online,” Read said in an interview. “It’s going to be a matter of looking at the data on a frequent basis and making that call.”
On Monday, The Daily News-Record reported that 10 JMU students had tested positive for the coronavirus. Nine were tested off-campus and reported to JMU and one result came from the University Health Center.
In an interview Thursday, Read said incorrectly that the university did not have any student or faculty cases, citing that the move-in had not begun and classes don’t start until Aug. 26. By then, the university had received at least five self-reported student cases.
She clarified Tuesday that the university did not publicly share the isolated number of self-reports for privacy reasons and the first non-athlete case reported through the health center was over the weekend. The other three student-athlete cases were publicly announced.
Read said all reports will now be reflected in the daily update.
But the uncertainty leaves some students nervous. Katelyn, a sophomore at JMU who asked that her last name not be used to speak freely, said she and her friends packed lightly for the fall semester. They think within a month, they’ll be headed home.
Katelyn’s first week back includes an in-person economics course for her major that has nearly 60 people enrolled. The class was originally a hybrid, she said. The professor sent the email last week about the switch, after Katelyn had purchased the textbooks and supplies, saying the room would still be at half capacity.
“To me, it doesn’t really make sense, because if we’re not allowed to be in gatherings of more than 10 people, why are we in a class with 60 people?” she asked.
In early August, Harrisonburg City Council passed an ordinance limiting gatherings to 50 people. The JMU student agreement the university required students to sign mandates that students will wear masks and not attend gatherings of more than 10 without risking consequences, which could include suspension or expulsion. Katelyn said she’s already seen a lack of students wearing masks on campus, further heightening the worry.
The self-reported cases are identified as students or employees who were tested off-campus and notified JMU. On its COVID dashboard, the school notes that not all positive cases are on campus and there are students and staff working or teaching remotely.
While VDH doesn’t disclose information about individual cases, Dr. Laura Kornegay, director of the Central Shenandoah District that includes Harrisonburg, said there’s been a slight upward trend of cases in Harrisonburg since mid-July and in the last 2 days. Kornegay said the uptick isn’t conclusively linked to JMU.
Of the 620 tests reported on the dashboard, 601 were on student athletes who were screened upon arrival beginning in early July. Athletics spokesperson Kevin Warner said the testing will increase as the school’s 500 student athletes return for the semester.
None of those test results include employees.
COVID-19 testing is also not mandated for all JMU students, unlike at VCU and UVA, which required testing as part of their reopening plans. In VCU’s first week of classes, 59 students tested positive.
The CDC does not advise mass testing for asymptomatic students. As a result, the University Health Center is focused on asymptomatic individuals, according to the JMU website, but will also test people who’ve been in contact with someone who tested positive upon request.
JMU will also not be releasing demographics data — age, sex, race or ethnicity — due to the small data set and heightened privacy risk.
Currently, the overall positivity rate — or the percentage of people who test positive — is 0.65%. If students are unable to quarantine, JMU has 136 beds available for isolation.
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Staff writer Wayne Epps contributed to this report.