- As colleges across the country bring students back to campus, many are seeing increased COVID-19 case counts. At the University of Alabama, 531 students and staff tested positive after the first week of classes.
- Other schools like the University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill switched their plans after seeing hundreds of cases. Notre Dame will be holding classes online temporarily, while UNC moved the rest of their semester to remote instruction.
- Schools are also working out how to stop students from partying, one of the most sure-fire ways to spread coronavirus on college campuses. Both Marist College and Syracuse University in New York have each suspended over a dozen students for attending parties that violated the school’s safety guidelines.
Over 500 Cases at the University of Alabama
As classes resume for colleges across the country, many are grappling with massive coronavirus case spikes on and off of their campuses.
On Monday, the University of Alabama published a COVID-19 dashboard showing that the school has had 531 confirmed cases on its main campus since classes began on August 19. There were an additional 35 cases between two other campuses and a university lab.
These figures do not even include student entry COVID-19 tests, which were taken before August 19. Those resulted in 310 positive cases on the main campus and 90 on two others. Right now, roughly 20% of the isolation space at the school is occupied.
The school has not yet announced any plans to pivot to entirely remote learning or to ask students to leave campus.
“A question we all want to know is are we at the breaking point? What’s the lever that’s going to cause us to have to change it?” University of Alabama President Stuart Bell said speaking on Monday morning. “Basically, I think it goes back to flattening this curve, so we are able to accommodate our current operations and make sure we are able to keep the students healthy. So, there really is no single answer.”
Bell also emphasized that the school’s primary challenge is the virus, not the students.
“What we have to do is identify where does the virus thrive and where does the virus spread and how can we work together with our students, with our faculty and with our staff to make sure that we minimize those places,” he said.
Still, the Mayor of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where the University of Alabama is located, closed bars for two weeks in order to prevent spread among students. That choice was applauded by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who said she hopes this is just a “brief pause on their plans to reopen.”
Cases at Other Schools
Another major Alabama school, Auburn University, has also seen an outbreak. Their COVID-19 data shows that 207 students and staff tested positive in the first week of classes.
This issue also reaches far beyond the state of Alabama. The University of Notre Dame in Illinois announced last week that it will temporarily move to online classes to slow spread on its campus. When they made that announcement, the campus had just shy of 150 cases. As of Tuesday, the school has well over 400.
Last week the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill opted to move the rest of its fall semester to online learning after there were 135 cases at the school. Since their announcement, 505 more students have tested positive for the virus. The school has a 32.3% positivity rate.
The University of Southern California said the school has 43 cases, 14 of which are from asymptomatic population testing, and 29 of which are from symptomatic testing and contact tracing. At least 100 students at the school are also quarantining as a result.
While these numbers are not as big as other schools, it is still a surprising figure because when USC resumed classes on August 17, the majority of their undergraduate instruction was done online and there is limited access to the campus. All of these cases came from students living in off-campus housing. According to the Los Angeles Times, there have been reports of parties and gatherings in those houses and apartments.
Parties have been a major concern for colleges that have opted to reopen. Syracuse University in upstate New York suspended 23 students after a large party was held on the school’s quad. Marist College, also in New York state, suspended 15 students for failing to follow social distancing guidelines at a party. Numerous other schools around the country have also said that students found breaking COVID-19 safety rules could be suspended or expelled.
See what others are saying: (AL.com) (Los Angeles Times) (South Bend Tribune)
Thanksgiving Travel Will Lead to COVID-19 Spike, Health Officials Warn
- As travel soared for the Thanksgiving holiday, health officials warn of an inevitable spike that will only worsen with Christmas on the way.
- Dr. Anthony Fauci urged travelers to isolate and quarantine as a “surge upon a surge” is on the way. Dr. Deborah Birx said that anyone who traveled should assume and act as if they have the virus.
- The month of November saw 4.2 million cases in the U.S., nearly one-third of the cases the country has seen throughout the pandemic. Deaths are also on the rise again.
- But in good news, Moderna is submitting its vaccine for FDA approval. It is the second company to do so behind Pfizer, and says its vaccine is 94% effective.
Cases and Travel on the Rise
After the U.S. saw record-breaking pandemic travel leading up to Thanksgiving, top health officials are urging travelers to quarantine as a surge in cases is likely coming.
On the day before Thanksgiving over 1,070,000 people traveled through airport security, which is the highest since the pandemic began, according to tallies from CNN Travel. While that is 40% less than the number of people who traveled the same day last year, it comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged the nation not to travel for the holiday. Over 6 million people went on to travel after the CDC made that plea.
The U.S. has seen a total of 13.4 million cases and lost 266,000 lives to the coronavirus. On Friday, the country broke a grim record, reporting over 205,000 new cases in a single day. The month of November has been one of the most consequential when it comes to the spread of COVID-19. At least 4.2 million cases were reported in November alone. This is over double the 1.9 million reported in October, which is the month with the second-highest number of cases. It also accounts for over 30% of the country’s total cases since the pandemic started.
Deaths are also on the rise. Nearly 36,000 lives have been lost in November, the highest that number has been since May. The month with the highest death toll is April when just under 59,000 people died.
Health Officials Warn of Surge
Because a surge in travel came at the same time cases were already on a concerning rise, the nation’s top health officials are urging travelers to isolate and test themselves as another rush of cases is nearly inevitable.
“We have to be careful now because there almost certainly is going to be an uptick because of what has happened with the travel,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told ABC News on Sunday.
“And perhaps two or three weeks down the line, Martha, we may see a surge upon a surge,” Dr. Fauci explained. “You know, we don’t want to frighten people, but that’s just the reality. We said that these things would happen as we got into the cold weather and we began traveling and they’ve happened. It’s gonna happen again.”
Officials believe that those who have traveled need to do everything in their power to prevent their ability to spread the virus as they return home. Dr. Deborah Birx, a top coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said that travelers should just assume they have COVID-19.
“We know people may have made mistakes over the Thanksgiving time period. If you’re young and you gathered, you need to be tested about five to 10 days later,” she said on Face the Nation. “But you need to assume that you’re infected and not go near your grandparents and aunts and others without a mask.”
The impacts of another surge could be severe. Across the country, hospitals are already overwhelmed. If cases skyrocket in the coming weeks, many places will not be equipped to handle the caseload. As Christmas approaches, travel and indoor gatherings will ramp up again, and another surge after that is also sure to come.
Moderna to Seek FDA Approval
But hope is on the horizon. Pfizer has already announced that it has begun the process of seeking FDA approval for its vaccine. Now, Moderna is on the same track. The Massachusetts-based company plans on submitting its vaccine for FDA authorization on Monday after expanded data showed that it is 94.1% effective overall and 100% effective in preventing severe cases.
Moderna’s study involved 30,000 people and resulted in 196 cases. The company said 185 of those came from the placebo group and 11 came from the vaccine group. It also said 30 of the reported cases were severe, all of which were from the placebo group.
So far, Moderna claims the efficacy of the vaccine is consistent across a number of demographics. The company also says that while a safety review is still ongoing, no serious concerns have been identified. The most common reactions included injection site pain, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and a few other milder side effects. In addition to submtting for approval from the FDA in the U.S., it will also seek authorization in Europe.
“We believe that our vaccine will provide a new and powerful tool that may change the course of this pandemic and help prevent severe disease, hospitalizations and death.” Stéphane Bancel the Chief Executive Officer of Moderna said in a statement. “I want to thank the thousands of participants in our Phase 1, Phase 2 and Phase 3 studies, as well as the staff at clinical trial sites who have been on the front lines of the fight against the virus.”
Moderna’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tal Zaks, told the Associated Press that when he saw how promising the results were, he became emotional.
“I allowed myself to cry for the first time,” he told the outlet. “We have already, just in the trial, have already saved lives. Just imagine the impact then multiplied to the people who can get this vaccine.”
Moderna expects to hold their big meeting with the FDA’s vaccine committee December 17, a week after Pfizer’s meeting. Once approved the vaccine will likely go to frontline workers and vulnerable populations first and both companies are getting ready to dole out vaccines the second they are allowed to do so. According to the AP, Moderna expected to have enough doses for 10 million people by the end of the year. Pfizer plans to have enough for 12.5 million in the United States.
See what others are saying: (CNN) (Associated Press) (CBS News)
As Unemployment Claims Rise, CA Officials Report Inmates Collected Millions in Benefits
- Unemployment numbers spiked for the second week in a row, marking the highest amount of new claims made since early October with 778,000 people filing. Over 20 million Americans are still collecting some kind of joblessness aid.
- Experts say this will only get worse as COVID cases continue to rise and states impose more restrictions. However, unlike during the spring shutdowns, struggling Americans and small businesses will likely not have any help from the federal government.
- Meanwhile, law enforcement officials in California reported that tens of thousands of inmates received upwards of $1 billion in unemployment benefits as part of a scam that officials described as “the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history.”
Unemployment Numbers Spike
Another 778,000 Americans filed for unemployment this week, the Department of Labor reported Wednesday, marking the highest spike since early October and the second week in a row that new claims have risen.
According to experts, this data signals that the massive coronavirus spikes the U.S. has seen in recent weeks are slowing the economy once again. On Wednesday, the country reported a record 2 million new cases in the same two weeks that joblessness claims also went up, bringing the official case count to more than 12.6 million Americans infected and over 260,000 dead.
As the COVID-19 spikes continue, and with more state and local governments imposing new restrictions on public gatherings, limiting hours and operations for restaurants and bars, and temporarily closing down some businesses entirely, economists say this situation will get worse before it gets better.
Unlike the first wave of shutdowns this past spring, it seems almost certain that struggling Americans will have to weather these latest closures without any help from the government.
Already, many of the programs that gave trillions of dollars to unemployed Americans and small businesses under the CARES Act have expired, and most of the few remaining programs will run out soon.
That is especially concerning when it comes to unemployment benefits. According to a recent report from the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, unless Congress and the White House sign off on a deal to extend key programs, roughly 12 million Americans will lose these benefits entirely the day after Christmas.
But after months of deadlock, any hopes for a new stimulus package petered out when the election came around. Democratic leadership is reportedly attempting to restart those talks, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he wants to approve some kind of bill before the end of the year.
However, it remains unclear how all the problems that had deadlocked the lawmakers for months during the earlier negotiations will be resolved in time.
Inmate Unemployment Fraud
Meanwhile, states are still continuing to struggle with distributing unemployment benefits to jobless Americans.
On Tuesday, a task force lead by nine district attorneys across the state of California reported in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) that tens of thousands of prison and jail inmates — including more than 100 people on death row — have collected hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment benefits as part of a scam that the officials say “appears to be the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history,”
According to the task force, between March and August, inmates housed in every single California prison and in jails throughout the state filed 35,000 claims totaling at least $140 million in benefits, though the alleged crimes could total as much as $1 billion.
In most cases, officials said that the payments were given out in the form of prepaid debit cards sent to friends or family on the outside who would then later deposit the proceeds to inmate accounts.
In some cases, the joblessness benefits were sent directly to the jails and prisons. Sometimes the inmates used their real names, but other times, they used fake names and fake Social Security numbers.
In fact, prosecutors were tipped off to some of the cases by listening to inmates recorded phone calls, where they bragged about how easy it was the game the system.
As far as how such widespread fraud could happen, law enforcement officials blamed California’s Employment Development Department, which has been swamped with processing more than 16.4 million unemployment claims since March, resulting in a massive backlog of unfilled claims that, according to reports, has totaled upwards of more than 1.6 million people at times.
However, the task force also said that part of the problem was due to the fact that unlike at least 35 other states, California does not have the technology to crosscheck inmate rosters against unemployment claims.
In their letter, the officials called on Newsom to crack down on the rampant fraud and provide “significant resources” to do so.
Newsom, for his part, responded in a statement by calling the fraud “absolutely unacceptable,” and ordering the Office of Emergency Services to create a task force to help the prosecutors with their investigation.
However, as The New York Times pointed out, Newsom had already formed a “strike team” a few months ago to help the state’s employment department speed up claims and address other issues, including fraud at correctional facilities.
The district attorneys were still forced to form their own task force with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation after the reports of fraud in the employment department continued and the “strike team” failed to uncover the large amounts of fraud the other groups had seen.
Currently, it is unclear how Newsom’s new task force is different from the largely unsuccessful “strike team.”
These problems also go beyond unemployment. There have been frequent reports of CARES Act funding being misused, including by people using small business loans to buy luxury cars, as well as large companies or businesses connected to President Donald Trump Trump and members of Congress improperly receiving funding.
As Congress considers another much-needed stimulus package, these issues of transparency and accountability have now become paramount.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NBC News) (USA Today)
COVID-19 Cases Expected To Surge After Thanksgiving
- With coronavirus cases already on a steep rise in the U.S, experts are warning that Thanksgiving travel and gatherings will likely make things worse. Canada, for example, saw a jump in cases after its citizens celebrated the holiday last month.
- Surgeon General Jerome Adams said that Americans should hold out for a vaccine, which is on the horizon, and be safe this Thanksgiving.
- A family in Texas is also waring against gathering, saying they learned how dangerous it is the hard way. After celebrating a birthday together, all 15 people who attended the party tested positive for the virus.
- On top of this experts are also warning against thinking a negative test clears you for socialization. In reality, you can test negative for the virus and still have and transmit it.
Warning From Surgeon General
As Thanksgiving looms closer, warnings against family gatherings are being echoed by experts and everyday people alike.
Health officials have been vocal about the threat the Thanksgiving holiday poses when it comes to the coronavirus. The U.S. has seen 12.4 million cases and lost 257,000 lives to the virus, and cases have been on a steep increase this month. The CDC has already warned against travel and experts have said that based on the spike Canada saw after its October Thanksgiving, America is set to go down a similar, or even worse path.
“I want the American people to know that we are at a dire point in our fight with this virus by any measure,” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Monday on Good Morning America. “Cases, positivity, hospitalizations, deaths. We’re seeing more Americans negatively impacted than ever before.”
Adams said that with a vaccine on the horizon, Americans should just wait out this homestretch and stay put for the holiday.
“I’m asking Americans, begging you, hold on just a little bit longer,” he said. “Keep Thanksgiving and the celebration small and smart this year.”
Family in Texas Urges Caution
Health officials are not the only ones preaching this advice. In Arlington, Texas, a family that has lived the consequences of gathering without regard for public health is urging people to not make the same mistake as them. The Aragonez family celebrated a birthday earlier this month indoors without masks or distancing. Now, all 15 people who attended tested positive for the virus.
“We feel guilty for gathering,” members of the family said in a video encouraging caution. “All this pain that my family is feeling, this loneliness, this sickness, this longing to be healthy could have been prevented.”
“Please don’t be like my family and ignore the CDC guidelines,” one person said. “By staying apart we can fight this virus together.”
While most cases in the family were mild, one person was hospitalized for over a week.
“One moment of carelessness has cost us a month of peace, has cost us sleep, has cost us laughs, has cost us a lot of money,” one family member told the Washington Post.
Testing Negative is Not Enough
Many have still forged on with their gathering plans under the false idea that if everyone tests negative before attending, they are in the clear to socialize. However, experts warn this is far from the case.
Just because a person tests negative does not necessarily mean they do not have the virus. Tests are not 100% accurate and it can take days or even a week to test positive for the virus after exposure. Not to mention, people could come into contract with the virus between their test and the family event.
“A negative result is a snapshot in time,” Dr. Paige Larkin, a clinical microbiologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago explaining to the New York Times. “It’s telling you that, at that exact second you are tested, the virus was not detected. It does not mean you’re not infected.”
While it might slightly minimize the risk of spread, it certainly does not eliminate it. More than anything, it gives people a false sense of security that they have a free pass to go wherever and see whoever they want, despite the fact that it still poses a large health threat.