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Oklahoma’s College Campuses Continue To Be Coronavirus Hotspots

The University of Oklahoma campus.
Robby Korth
StateImpact Oklahoma
The University of Oklahoma campus.

A September surge of COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma is largely a result of the coronavirus’ spread on college campuses.


Oklahoma’s new cases and the 7-day average of them leveled off this summer and held pretty steady. The last major spike was August 1, but after that, cases consistently dropped until mid-September.  The state set a new record for the 7-day average on September 21, again surpassing 1,000 cases a day, and cases continued spiking after that.

State leaders are well aware that along with prisons, colleges and universities are a major driver for infection rates going up, said state Commissioner of Health Lance Frye.

“It [the recent spike in cases] looks like it’s mostly due to school reopenings. Universities are the main factor,” Frye said. “We’ve also had some outbreaks in different congregate facilities around the state, the Department of Corrections, et cetera, but the significant number of them are universities.”

But how big was the cumulative impact? It’s difficult to say. Like in K-12 schools, no state agency is collecting and publishing case data for colleges. There is also inconsistent reporting from colleges and universities, who measure spread in different ways.

StateImpact surveyed the state’s campuses and found that since classes began at least 2,400 people at those schools have tested positive for the virus. The number of actual people with COVID-19 on campuses is likely higher. Asymptomatic people and those testing positive but not reporting it to the institution can be missed. .

Some institutions didn’t have the numbers readily on hand and others didn’t immediately respond to requests for information from StateImpact reporters.

Higher education institutions are taking  steps to slow the spread of the virus. 

The college experience in fall 2020 universally involves masks, social distancing and more online options for students. But there are obvious challenges to containing the virus on campus. 

The White House Coronavirus Task Force issues weekly reports to states with tailored data and policy recommendations. For several weeks, those reports have contained advice specifically for college and university towns.

This week’s edition encouraged Oklahoma officials to dramatically increase testing at universities to identify cases more quickly and quarantine them sooner. It also advised using positive incentives to encourage testing among students. 

The report recommended something the University of Oklahoma has already implemented: wastewater surveillance. Stool and other samples can contain traces of the virus, which show up in tested samples, often before the carriers get tested themselves.

The reports have consistently recommended messaging strategies that encourage students to take necessary precautions, get tested, and quarantine safely. That guidance included a push to work with campus leaders on getting the word out. 

Past reports also pushed for the creation of quarantine facilities and sites that  should be used instead of allowing infected students to return home. 

Mostly, guidance for colleges and universities has hinged on ensuring infected students stay put.  Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Vice President Mike Pence have taken to the airwaves to reiterate that point. 

Gov. Kevin Stitt said in a press conference last week that he had just been on the phone with Pence and governors from across the country discussing that recommendation. 

“If you test positive, we really need you and want you and implore you to stay on campus,” Stitt said.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Catherine Sweeney grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and attended Oklahoma State University. She has covered local, state and federal government for outlets in Oklahoma, Colorado and Washington, D.C.
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