COVID-19 infections could peak at 1,650 per day at UNC-Chapel Hill

By: - January 5, 2022 6:00 am

Planning document written by UNC epidemiologists shows alarming numbers

UNC epidemiologists project there could be 1,400 to 2,900 positive COVID-19 tests within the first 30 days of classes at the Chapel Hill campus, according to a Jan. 4 brief obtained by Policy Watch.

Infections are projected to peak two to three weeks into the spring semester, the brief says, with 850 to 1,650 infections per day. 

Classes resume on campus Monday, Jan. 10. If the estimates are correct, infections among students could reach 13,800 to 22,270 by mid-February.

“We expect between 166 and 195 students to return to campus infected, and that current reentry testing  protocols would identify between 40% and 50% of these infections,” the brief reads.

The authors of the brief stressed that these were “rough estimates for planning purposes” and not formal forecasts. The document is credited to UNC epidemiologists Dr. Jessie  Edwards, Dr. Audrey Pettifor and Dr. Justin  Lessler and Dr. Paul Delamater, an assistant professor of Geography and fellow with the Carolina Population Center.

These figures have not been publicly released, though sources told Policy Watch that top officials at UNC-Chapel Hill have seen them.

The brief does not address how many students might become seriously ill or be hospitalized. Federal health officials believe the COVID-19 omicron variant is more transmissible than the delta variant, but could cause milder symptoms. However, omicron has led to record numbers of infections in the state, as well as high rates of hospitalizations; the severity of the disease can vary depending on a person’s vaccination status and underlying health conditions.

While the brief emphasizes the uncertainty about the omicron variant, it also stresses the accuracy of previous modeling done in the same manner.

Policy Watch contacted each of the authors by phone and email.

One of the brief’s authors, Dr. Justin Lessler, got back to Policy Watch late Tuesday via e-mail. Lessler, an epidemiologist with the Gillings School of Public Health, said not all infections will result in symptomatic disease.

“High expected infections rates during the omicron wave are in no way unique to campus,” Lessler wrote. “And the work on the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub (which I help coordinate) and others suggest that rates of infection and detected cases will be similar to the noted campus numbers for the state overall.”

As of Jan. 4, state health officials reported 29.7% of daily coronavirus tests were positive, well above the target of less than 5%, set in order to slow the spread of the virus. Many communities are seeing spikes in their infection and hospitalization rates, some of them the worst of the pandemic. The demand for testing has overwhelmed some areas of the state, with even symptomatic patients unable to schedule a test or find available at-home tests. 

At least 1.7 million people in North Carolina have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 2020,according to NC Department of Health and Human Services figures. About 19,500 people have died. Just over 3,000 people were reported hospitalized with COVID-19 on Tuesday, up from 2,722 the day before.

About 74% of adults in North Carolina have received at least one dose of one of the available vaccines and about 69% have been fully vaccinated, DHHS data shows.

Different campuses, different approaches

Entering the third year of the pandemic, campuses across the UNC system — and even individual schools within some universities — are reacting differently to the public health challenge.

Some universities within the 16-campus system have delayed the beginning of the semester, while others are shifting their modes of instruction. Elizabeth City State University and Fayetteville State University will push their reopenings to Jan. 18 and Jan. 19, respectively.  UNC-Charlotte will hold its first two weeks of undergraduate classes virtually and UNC-Asheville will delay in-person classes for its first week.

UNC-Chapel Hill, the system’s flagship school, will open its semester as planned on Jan. 10. But deans of each school will work with faculty to determine whether classes are held virtually or in-person, and for how long.

UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz

“We have heard from many students, parents and faculty about the value they place in an on-campus living and learning environment, and the importance of in-person instruction for student success,” UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz wrote in a message to the campus community last week. “We remain committed to providing the safest residential learning experience for our students.”

“We have also heard suggestions about altering the start of the semester and have considered several options, while listening to many of our campus constituencies and consulting with colleagues at other institutions,” Guskiewicz wrote. “We recognize that some students may be delayed in their return to campus, and we are aware of circumstances that may prevent some faculty from delivering their previously planned in-person instruction in the initial weeks of the semester.”

Many students, faculty and staff are displeased by the decision.

On Monday, the UNC-Chapel Hill Residence Hall Association Executive Board opposed the plan in an open letter addressed to Guskiewicz, outgoing Provost Bob Blouin, and Dr. Amir Barzin, the lead physician with the Carolina Together campus testing program.

The letter called the current plan “extremely reckless and disheartening.”

“North Carolina and the United States as a whole are at the peak of the COVID-19 transmission and hospitalizations, yet UNC shows no indication of changing course, despite our peer institutions doing so,” the executive board wrote. “Furthermore, it is clear that student, staff, and faculty input have not been prioritized in the planning or decision-making process for the return to campus. The Campus and Community Advisory Committee (CCAC), whose explicit purpose is to review and strategize on COVID-19 plans, was not once consulted before spring plans were released to the public.”

“… Not requiring each student to test before they come back into classrooms is setting us up for widespread outbreaks, where there will be unprecedented positivity levels across our community. Additionally, the removal of quarantine and isolation spaces in residence halls means that students will have no choice but to be exposed to COVID-19, expose their roommate(s), or return home if they are able and potentially expose their families.”

Some Chapel Hill faculty said the campus plan is inadequate and potentially confusing. For example, the law school starts today, Jan. 5, with the rest of campus starting next week. 

Journalism Professor Deb Aikat

“The deans are being given the authority to let faculty decide to teach remotely on a temporary basis,” said Deb Aikat, a journalism professor and member of the university’s Faculty Executive Committee. “But none of us know what ‘temporary’ means and there may be different standards for teaching remotely in each school.”

“I taught in person last semester and I enjoyed every minute of it,” Aikat said. “But there were students who got sick. And if you are going to have a lot of students getting sick and needing remote classes, there is work that has to be done to record classes, to move to doing remote classes. When you have people making different decisions and each school deciding how and when they will do this separately, there will be confusion.”

Students and faculty at campuses across the UNC system continue to push for stronger protections, such as the mandatory booster shots for students and faculty announced by Duke University late last month. Duke, a smaller private institution, is also beginning its semester with virtual classes until Jan. 18.

The numbers of vaccinations at UNC System schools are currently based on self-reporting. Those numbers do not account for booster shots.

A vaccine mandate would need approval from the UNC System and its board of governors. Despite the urging of former state health directors and public health professionals, they have so far resisted taking that step.

Students and faculty struggle as teaching shifts

Lauren Richardson is a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill pursuing a dual Master of Science in Public Health and MBA. She began her graduate studies a few months before the beginning of the pandemic and is now finishing them during the largest recorded spike of infections in the state. Though she’d hoped to return to in-person classes and to get to know the 300 people in her cohort better before the end of grad school, she said she’s frustrated to see some professors abandon remote learning. 

“I’ve been on the more cautious side of things this whole pandemic,” Richardson said. “They just took away the Zoom option for my business classes. They’ll allow students to watch recordings but we can’t attend classes via Zoom. I know some people struggle with Zoom classes but I’ve found with the classes I’ve had, if you put in the work you can still get a lot of the class.”

In the last few weeks she’s seen close friends and families she become infected. She worries about getting sick and what infection might mean for her partner, who can’t afford to miss work if taken ill. “It feels like UNC and the country in general is taking a ‘let it rip, let it burn through’ kind of approach,” Richardson said.

Many people who are young, healthy and vaccinated could get sick without serious consequences, Richardson said, but everyone’s situation is different.

“You don’t know what’s going on in peoples’ lives,” Richardson said. “I have classmates who just had babies. There are people with congenital heart problems you might not know about, because they don’t talk about it. There are people with immunocompromised families. And it feels like they just don’t care anymore if people get sick. If they did, there would be a Zoom option for everyone.”

Kaylee Tackett, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill studying computer science, said the rollback of remote learning hurts families like hers. Her mother, with whom she still has frequent contact, is immunocompromised.

She enjoyed living in the dorm, but has opted to rent off-campus this year because she no longer feels safe. Too many students aren’t taking vaccination and masking as seriously as they should, she said.

“UNC is one of the largest, most important public health schools, we helped develop the vaccine and we’ve been part of important research on the pandemic,” Tackett said. “The fact that we aren’t mandating vaccination and booster shots while other schools all over the country are, I just don’t understand it.”

The announcement that individual deans would make decisions about remote instruction this semester, and for a limited time, was frustrating for Tackett.

“Having the deans now make decisions about in-person or remote instruction doesn’t make sense to me,” she said. “Yes, our deans are very intelligent people. But they aren’t all public health professionals and this is a public health crisis. Professors can make requests about how they’ll handle remote learning, but some professors are 100% onboard with in-person instruction and some are very flexible. You don’t know who you’re going to get.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.