All Michigan State University students should self-quarantine after major COVID-19 outbreak, health department warns

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

East Lansing — The Ingham County Health Department is recommending all Michigan State University students self-quarantine immediately to contain a coronavirus outbreak from which at least 342 people have tested positive for the disease since Aug. 24.

“This is an urgent situation,” Ingham County Health Officer Linda S. Vail said in a statement. “The exponential growth of COVID-19 cases must stop.

MSU sophomore Angela Petterson of Adrian studies alone for an Integrated Social Sciences class outside on campus Saturday in East Lansing.

“I am concerned about the health and safety of the MSU community, and importantly, I am seriously concerned that unchecked transmission locally will affect the health and safety of all Ingham County residents. If we do not slow the spread immediately, we will be dealing with the consequences across the county for months to come.”

The health department says those who have been at MSU should self-quarantine for 14 days, which is until 11:59 p.m. Sept. 26. The recommendation is not an emergency order, but the department warned of more stringent and mandatory restrictions if students don't comply.

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In the three weeks prior to the case surge, just 23 MSU-affiliated people tested positive, the health department said. The department did not disclose how many people in the latest outbreak were experiencing symptoms or hospitalized.

"Last year, when I was a freshman, I was surrounded by hundreds of students at a time," said Angela Petterson, an MSU sophomore from Adrian. "Now, I feel my campus is a ghost town."

Students in quarantine should remain at home for the next two weeks other than to attend in-person instruction, labs and intercollegiate athletic training. They may also leave their homes to work or obtain food, medicine, medical care or supplies needed to sustain or protect life (when those supplies cannot be obtained via delivery), the health department said. 

The uptick in cases began as students returned to the East Lansing community for the fall semester. Although MSU classes are predominately online, many students had binding off-campus leases or simply desired to physically return to the university community.

New coronavirus cases have spiked since Michigan State University classes resumed.

“MSU is committed to doing everything we can to prevent the spread of COVID-19," Michigan State University Physician Dr. David Weismantel said in the statement. “The safety of our entire community is a priority and we all have a role to play in preventing the spread of the virus. This recommendation from the health department is another tool to help us do just that.”

At least a third of new cases recently attended parties or social gatherings, and at least one-third of those gatherings are associated with a fraternity or sorority.

“We are urging students to understand the imperative role that they play in stopping this community spread and, ultimately, saving lives,” East Lansing Mayor Aaron Stephens said. “While we know many students are doing the right thing, we are still seeing far too many social gatherings in the off-campus community, where individuals are in close contact without face coverings. This person-to-person contact is the main way that the virus spreads and has contributed significantly to the recent spike in student cases. We support this recommendation from the Ingham County Health Department.”

The health department will evaluate congregate settings, such as houses licensed for more than 10 unrelated people over the coming days to see if additional measures are warranted.

The outbreak comes as colleges across the state are asking students to proceed with an abundance of caution.

Michigan recorded 692 cases and 13 deaths from COVID-19 Saturday for a total of 111,524 cases and 6,591 deaths in Michigan since March.

The University of Michigan also warned of possible exposure after a student who tested positive at its Ann Arbor campus used the music department's practice rooms in the first week of September.

Ingham and Isabella, which hosts Central Michigan University, are among the top five counties for new cases per population over the last three weeks.

Lenawee County, where Adrian College is located, is among the top 10 counties for new cases per population over the last three weeks, according to state data. The Lenawee County Health Department recommended Adrian suspend face-to-face classes for two weeks after it reported an outbreak of 152 cases.

There have been seven outbreaks at Michigan's colleges and universities in the last two weeks, according to state data.

MSU says there will be consequences for violations, and the university is already considering interim suspensions for students who have repeatedly violated the social distancing rules during the pandemic.

"All of us are responsible not only for our own health but also for that of the community, especially its most vulnerable members," Weismantel said in a letter to students, sent out hours after the health department issued the recommendation. "More than 6,500 Michigan residents have already died from COVID-19. Further, what happens right now will significantly influence decisions on how much of the spring semester will be conducted in person or remotely."

Senior civil engineering major Mìké Brown, 21, said the university hasn't sent students an update on the outbreak since earlier in the week when there were just over 100 cases. Other than students wearing masks on campus, he said things don't generally look any different. 

"I've seen a couple of my friends, but sometimes I get worried that I'm being as safe as I should be, especially with people attending functions and you don't know who is seeing who. There are too many variables to keep track of."

Brown, who lives in a house on the edge of campus and doesn't have any in-person classes this semester, said he always has a state of worry, but it hasn't escalated much even knowing cases are growing. He says he has tried to be as safe as possible, but he also knows he can't control others. 

"In my personal opinion, I have zero faith in the students. I think kids are going to be kids at their own expense and the expense of those around them," he said. "I saw it coming. I feel like I didn't expect any different."

Tenaisia Turner never thought her freshman year of college would be this way. The 18-year-old mechanical engineering major lives alone in one of the dorms on MSU's campus and has all her classes online.

She has no suitemates, nobody shares her bathroom and everyone is spread out and wearing masks, which she says was "a good call" on the part of the university. The only time she gets worried is when she goes to the cafeteria to eat. 

"I think the caf is a place I feel nervous. When you sit down to eat people can take their masks off. I feel nervous. You don't know who could have the coronavirus."

As for any new regulations, Turner says it won't be hard to follow them, but she isn't so sure others will be as willing.

"Personally I don't think a lot of students are going to do that. We are already on lockdown. We didn't expect our first year of college to be like this," she said. "I don't know if a lot of kids are going to do this."

Staff writers Craig Mauger, Ariana Taylor and Kalea Hall contributed