Western Carolina University adds 22 new COVID cases during first week of instruction

Image from FDA.gov

Editor’s note:  As a result of an ambiguously-worded COVID “dashboard,” the original version of this article, first published Aug. 20, erroneously listed the number of new cases as 8 and not 22.  University administration convened a working group Aug. 21 to address the website to ensure the accuracy of future communication on reported cases among students and employees.

With the first week of the 2020-21 school year coming to its close, Western Carolina University has added 22 new active cases of COVID-19.

On Monday, Aug. 17, one new case was reported. The following Wednesday, Western Carolina would add seven active COVID-19 cases among its students, eight on Thursday, and another six were reported Friday.

These cases mark the beginning of a new wave of viral activity on campus after spread over the summer gained national attention from a New York Times article.

As universities across the United States retreat from in-person instruction to online, including UNC-Chapel Hill, an uncertainty hangs over the future of the fall semester.

In an email to Western Carolina, Chancellor Kelli R. Brown confirmed the university “Is moving forward with residential instruction,” and that “We continue to evaluate conditions that may influence our ability to deliver residential operations.”

In a later email, Chancellor Brown would make the plea that “For this to work, you – the students – must do your part. Let me emphasize this point – students must absolutely and categorically adhere to the expectations and requirements of our Catamounts Care campaign,” a sentiment that left many students and faculty feeling sore at placing the blame of the inevitable on the backs of those the decisions of administration are ultimately responsible for.

While the cases continue to come in, many people, both on campus and off, worry about the reporting systems in place – specifically: are some student cases going uncounted?

In a statement by Bill Studenc, Chief Communications Officer at Western Carolina, “The current WCU COVID-19 dashboard reports all positive cases as determined from the following sources: any student tested by our University Health Services who returns a positive diagnosis, any student who is tested as part of a campus-directed surveillance testing protocol (for example, through the Athletics Program) who returns a positive diagnosis and any student tested off-campus who reports a positive diagnosis through the university’s self-report tool.”

It is the last point of the self-report tool that has many anxious that students tested off campus will slide under the radar of the university.

Faculty, staff, and student supervisors do have some limited power in the matter. If they suspect a student has caught the novel coronavirus and is not taking appropriate actions or self-reporting, they can fill out a Student Concern Response Team (SCRT) report.

As the semester began, many faculty were unaware of the SCRT process.  According to Studenc, “This process was highlighted in an Academic Affairs-wide email on [Aug. 14] and we will continue to publicize this process as the semester continues. In addition, the process was reinforced during [the Aug. 19] meeting of the Provost’s Council and deans are following up with their respective colleges and units.”

Studenc added that “The university will continue to work closely with county health department staff, and if notified of an outbreak or cluster among WCU employees or students, will make that information available to the campus community.

“Western Carolina University is prepared for many possible scenarios if local conditions warrant, including a change of instructional modalities. University leadership is strongly encouraging the WCU campus community to continue embracing the Catamounts Care prevention strategies – avoid mass gatherings, wear face coverings, practice physical distancing and wash hands frequently or use hand sanitizer – for a successful semester.”

Western Carolina’s COVID dashboard, including active and cumulative case counts, can be found at https://www.wcu.edu/coronavirus/reporting.aspx.  Please note that the “Current Daily Active New Case Count” on the website is the count for the previous day only and not a running total of current active cases.

For more information on the steps university administration are taking this academic year, visit https://www.wcu.edu/operations-procedures/.