By Daniel Robillard || Investigative Reporter
As students’ return to Franklin & Marshall College nears, COVID-19 cases across the U.S., Pennsylvania, and Lancaster continue to rise. The recent spike in cases has largely been associated with college-aged individuals, young adults ages 19 to 24-years-old.
Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine issued an urgent Health Alert to all health care providers regarding the changing demographics of COVID-19 cases. In the Alert, Dr. Levine stressed the rising number of positive COVID-19 cases among younger people, particularly the increasing number of cases associated with travel to and from other states and social settings among those younger age groups.
In April, only 5% of COVID-19 cases in the South East region of Pennsylvania were from 19 to 24-year-olds. By July, that number had more than tripled, with 17% of COVID-19 cases coming from 19 to 24-year-olds, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
“It is essential that young people realize the importance of protecting not only their health, but the health of loved ones and the community as they prepare to return to school,” Nate Wardle, Press Secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health told The College Reporter on Monday. Wardle also stressed the importance of following guidelines like wearing masks and maintaining social distance. “While some of these efforts are common sense,” he added, “some are also more difficult on a college campus, and it is important that everyone is aware of the dangers of this virus and acts accordingly.”
The message conveyed by the Office of Lancaster City Mayor Danene Sorace echoed that of Wardle. “Students will be welcome to enjoy the City but will need to follow the guidelines in place, such as wearing a mask in all public places,” said Amber Strazzo, a spokesperson for the Mayor.
Strazzo acknowledged that the City continues to see increases in COVID-19 case numbers but also emphasized that “we have seen a steady decrease in the rate of positive cases in Lancaster County.”
However, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the number of new cases per 100,000 people during the last 14 days for Lancaster has continued to increase over the past week. As of Monday, the County is still seeing a rate of new confirmed cases per 100,000 for the last 14 days that is 70% greater than the target set by the Department of Health.
And, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute, Pennsylvania is still behind in effectively combating the outbreak of COVID-19. Currently, Pennsylvania is only meeting 69% of the testing rate that is estimated to be needed to effectively suppress the spread of COVID-19. Pennsylvania has also yet to meet its targeted positive test rate, which health experts recommend is needed to consider the outbreak suppressed.
However, Lancaster County has seen a steady decline in its positive test rate for the past week, a possible glimpse of progress amid what has been a surging number of cases in June and July.
On Thursday, F&M Dean of Student Affairs Margaret Hazlett emailed students with an update on move-in procedures and housing for the fall semester, which will begin in just a few weeks. In the email, Hazlett announced that move-in will include a COVID-19 test for each student, and students will be required to quarantine in their rooms until their test results are received.
Although tests in high priority settings such as hospitals and nursing homes have typically returned results within two days, most other tests across Pennsylvania have faced significant delays in returning results, with many recipients having to wait more than a week to receive them.
In Lancaster, due to limited testing availability, tests for the general public are only available to individuals who are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, and recipients must receive an order from a doctor to be tested.
Some students returning to campus will be coming from states with significantly high numbers of COVID-19 cases. According to data from the Office of Admissions, around 10% of the Class of 2023 came from U.S. states that are currently on the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s list of states with high amounts of COVID-19 cases.
To help limit the number of students in campus housing the College is encouraging students who live within a 75-mile radius of F&M to commute for the fall semester. That would include students from more than one-third of the counties in Pennsylvania, the state with the largest representation at F&M with 31% of the Class of 2023. It would also include several counties in New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland.
As for students currently living in F&M affiliated off-campus housing, the College has not yet been tracking the COVID situation. “Since the College remains closed and our Student Wellness Center is closed for the month of July, students are not required to notify us if they are being tested or have tested positive,” Hazlett said.
On July 8, Shannon Mahoney, the General Manager for College Row, emailed residents to inform them that College Row had “been made aware of a resident with a presumptive positive finding of the COVID-19 virus at our property.”
Mahoney and Angela White, the manager of F&M’s other off-campus property, College Hill, did not return repeated requests for comment.
Whether or not the College will be providing any updates to students about new positive cases on campus is still up for decision. Asked if the College will be communicating updates with students regarding COVID cases on campus during the fall, Hazlett said that “it is under discussion by the ROOT group and sub-committees.”
“Given the small size of our community, we have to balance community interest with individual confidentiality,” Hazlett explained. “All of us need to understand that the virus is in our F&M community, and we all need to work together to mitigate its spread.”
A key part of the effort to mitigate the spread of the virus on campus is the “F&M Pledge,” which President Altmann announced on Monday. The “F&M Pledge,” a two-page document that all students returning to campus in the fall will be asked to sign, “was designed to instill peer-to-peer accountability for the next academic year” the student body president Shubj Punj (’21) told The College Reporter. “It is important that we agree to certain guidelines to make a return to campus possible” Punj said. “As students, we need to hold each other to certain standards without waiting to be told what to do.”
Strazzo, the spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, said that the Mayor “supports the Governor’s designation that any level of in-person instruction is up to each institution” and that the Mayor is “confident [that] F&M has the appropriate plan and implementation strategies to support healthy, safe, and inclusive learning environments informed by guidance from the PA Department of Health and CDC.”
Junior Daniel Robillard is an Investigative Reporter. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org