ALLENDALE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — The Ottawa County Department of Public Health is telling Grand Valley State University to stay in place for two weeks as it attempts to quell a coronavirus outbreak.
Starting Thursday, Allendale campus students should stay in their homes — on or off campus — through Oct. 1, though they may still go to class, get food, exercise, go to medical appointments and fulfill religious obligations. They may go to work if deemed essential and if their employer OKs their return.
Students should not go to any parties or other group activities. Unless there’s an emergency, they should not go back to their parents’ homes so as not to spread the virus to other areas.
During a Wednesday afternoon Zoom press conference, GVSU President Philomena Mantella said the university is not changing its in-person learning for now since classes don’t seem to be the source of spread. Classes already have limited capacity and students are wearing masks during them.
“The order is really focused on those areas where students congregate socially and it really kind of acknowledges that we’re not seeing the transmission in our university facilities, busing, the kinds of places that you may also look for the virus to be at levels that are high,” Mantella said.
University administrator Greg Sanial, also the interim director of GVSU’s Virus Action Team, said the contact tracing is leading back to gatherings of fewer than 10 people.
Mantella added that students violating the staying-in-place order or not wearing masks in public will first been reminded to follow the rules. If they still don’t, the university will move to possible discipline under the student code of conduct, including expulsion. Student ambassadors and campus police will help with enforcement.
“The majority of our students are doing a great job following the guidance, so it’s really finding those exceptions quickly and addressing them,” Mantella said.
A pair of freshman roommates living in the dorm feel this latest order goes too far.
“They’re telling us we can’t even go home to see our families and (that) doesn’t feel like we’re at public college,” freshman Taegan Byers said. “We’re so afraid of breaking the rules and getting kicked out because that’s what they’re threatening at this point.”
During the virtual press conference, GVSU administrators made it clear that disciplinary action would be used as a last resort.
“If we remind (students) and educate them, then we move very quickly and rapidly to the kinds of sanctions related that come with persistent noncompliance,” Mantella said.
A group of upperclassmen living at an off-campus house said they’ve spent most the school year quarantined after contracting the virus a few weeks back.
“As soon as our personal quarantines ended from when we had the virus, they put this new stay in place in order,” junior Alexander Saurbier said. “So now we have to quarantine for an extra two weeks on top of the two weeks that we’ve already been quarantined.”
State data shows GVSU has the largest outbreak of any college in Michigan. Ottawa County says it has seen more than 600 cases among the student population in Allendale Township since Aug. 23, and GVSU says it has had 740 cases between both Ottawa and Kent counties since Aug. 1.
As of noon Wednesday, GVSU’s online dashboard shows 370 “active” cases. Most of those are among students who live off campus, though some are on campus. Sanial said the university has seen a “leveling off” of cases in recent days and hopes working with the county will maintain that trajectory.
“Our testing program is focused on containment. That’s the objective. We’re going to test as much as we can, we’re going to look for hot spots and retest,” Mantella said. “We’re less concerned about our numbers appear and more concerned that our numbers are doing the job.”
She said they are doing the job, alerting the university to problems.
Sanial said the school will be working even more closely with the county and helping students to better understand what information they should provide when speaking with contact tracers.
“Control of the COVID-19 pandemic is necessary to protect the health of Ottawa County communities,” Lisa Stefanovsky, Ottawa County Department of Public Health public health officer, said in a statement. “Based on epidemiological data and the expertise of public health officials, the increased numbers of GVSU cases may adversely impact other communities, services and businesses in the county. This could include the Ottawa County Court system and K-12 education based on the state’s mandated thresholds for in-person interactions. GVSU has worked collaboratively with us in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and we truly appreciate their support as we work through this.”
Health officials also reminded students to follow other coronavirus mitigation practices including frequent hand washing, staying 6 feet from others and wearing a mask when around others.
— News 8’s Jacqueline Francis contributed to this report.