Emergency order issued as returning students make CMU a COVID hotspot

Kim Kozlowski Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Eighty-two cases related to students at Central Michigan University returning to the Mount Pleasant area were identified by the regional health department on Monday, double the number of cases from last week, and prompting the department to issue an emergency order to limit the size of gatherings.  

The order, which takes effect at 8 p.m. Monday, calls for no more than 25 people, down from 100, at outdoor events in Mount Pleasant and Union Township, said the Central Michigan District Health Department. Indoor gatherings remain limited to 10 or fewer people not of the same household per state executive orders.

“We have seen a large increase in cases since students returned to the Mt. Pleasant area. Our investigations have shown that the majority of these cases had attended large social gatherings,” said Steve Hall, health officer for the health department.

"Restrictions on the size of outdoor gatherings, along with other preventive measures will help us reduce the spread of this virus."

CMU President Bob Davies said he was recommending limiting all indoor gatherings to fewer than 10 individuals and outdoor gatherings to no more than 15-20. 

The 82 CMU-related cases included 75 confirmed cases and seven probable cases. Case counts include current students, former students and those living in the community who were identified as being associated with other cases related to a return to school. Each positive case had multiple contacts, health officials said.

CMU officials said that its weekly reporting does not include anyone who is not a student, faculty or staff member.

A standing cutout of Central Michigan University President Robert O. Davies  with the modified "Fire Up Chips" slogan to "Fire Up! Mask Up!" greets students. Eighty-two cases related to students returning to the Mount Pleasant area were identified by the Central Michigan District Health Department on Monday — double the number of cases from last week.

"We have had 54 new cases in our campus community over the past week," CMU spokeswoman Heather Smith said in an email. "As predicted, the number of COVID-19 cases in the CMU community has increased as students returned for the fall semester." 

"Of the 54 new student cases over the past week, particularly concerning are pockets of positive cases and symptomatic individuals living in three houses off-campus," she continued. "We are working closely with our health experts and local health department on contact tracing, which is critical for mitigating spread. In response to these new cases, we have strongly increased our safety messaging to students and are taking steps to proactively prevent further spread."

Last week, department officials said it had linked 38 cases linked to the CMU community and eight probable cases. Each case had between five to 20 close contacts that they are reaching out to.

"In the week prior to classes starting at CMU, there were five confirmed cases found to be associated with CMU," wrote Melissa DeRoche, emergency preparedness coordinator and spokeswoman for the Central Michigan District Health Department.

"Our investigations have shown that many individuals that have tested positive live with several roommates or have attended large social gatherings. Individuals are current students, former students and those living in the community," she said.

Over the weekend,  Tony Voisin, CMU associate vice president for student affairs, wrote in an email to students letting them know they faced fines, potential suspension and even a total shutdown of the campus.

Referring to other schools that have reversed course after a COVID outbreak, Voison said that "the actions of a few selfish students have ruined an entire year for thousands of their peers."

"The same will happen here at CMU if students continue to engage in this type of reckless, irresponsible behavior," he wrote.

Data from Isabella County, in which Mount Pleasant lies, shows that in the third week of August, there was a 350% increase in the number of COVID-19 cases compared to the previous week, health officials said Monday. 

"During that week, 92% of reported cases were among those 18- to 24-years-old," the health department said. "This is compared to the first 2 weeks of August in which 39% of cases were among this age group.

"With thousands of students returning to Central Michigan University in Isabella County, many from states with high rates of COVID-19, living in congregate settings, and traditionally disposed toward socializing in large groups, further restrictions need to be put in place to prevent outbreaks related to large social gatherings and organized events."

In a statement Monday, Davies said in response to the new cases, "we have strongly increased our safety messaging to students and are taking steps to proactively prevent further spread." Those include directing Greek organizations to suspend all in-person activities; working with landlords and apartment complex managers to enforce limits on gatherings; and fining or even suspending those who host and attend large gatherings, according to the statement.

The school also is partnering with a private company to begin on-campus testing in the next week for people who have been identified as symptomatic or close contacts, the release said.

"Remaining on campus this fall relies on every member of our community accepting the responsibility to protect ourselves and others," Davies said. "The activities we engage in — both on and off our campus — have repercussions for everyone who lives, learns and works at CMU and in our local community."