Michigan State University tells students to primarily stay in their residences

Craig Mauger Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Lansing — Weeks into the beginning of a new semester, another Michigan university is directing students to follow safety measures and stay in their residences to curtail the spread of COVID-19.

Michigan State University officials told students Saturday to spend the next two weeks in their residences, citing a "rapid increase in our COVID-19 positivity rate" and some students' failure to follow safety rules.

University of Michigan students were directed to follow a similar protocol last week.

The positivity rate is the percentage of coronavirus tests bringing positive results, a key metric state health officials have been monitoring during the pandemic. Through Feb. 13, MSU is instituting a period of "enhanced physical distancing," according to an email sent to students.

Michigan State University officials told students Saturday to spend the next two weeks in their residences, citing a "rapid increase in our COVID-19 positivity rate" and some students' failure to follow safety rules.

MSU's spring semester started Jan. 11 with a reading week. In a staggered process that began Jan. 15,  2,500 students moved into campus housing to live in single rooms following the fall semester when students were asked to stay home and study due to the pandemic. Online classes began Jan. 19, and in-person classes began Jan. 25.

MSU's positivity rate jumped after students moved back to campus and the East Lansing area for the spring semester , according to the email.

In the email to students, MSU officials urged students living on and off campus to the stay in their homes because the positivity rate increase "also is a result of a failure by some Spartans to adhere to our health and safety guidelines," the message said.

"Failure to comply with this directive may result in your removal from on-campus housing without refund and/or suspension or expulsion from the university," said the message from Vennie Gore, interim vice president for student affairs and services, and Dr. David Weismantel, university physician.

MSU also sent a separate email to students living in the residence halls.

"You may not have any visitors in your residence hall room, gather in groups in lounges or dine together — this includes suitemates, 'pod mates' or 'bubble mates,'"  Gore and Weismantel wrote. "You also must continue to follow the MSU Community Compact, which includes completing a daily health screening form and participating in the COVID-19 Early Detection Program."

Students can leave their residences and come to campus to attend an in-person class, do research or show up for a job that must be done in person, get internet access, pick up meals from a dining hall, get medical care or participate in the university's COVID-19 Early Detection Program. 

The campus changes that MSU officials highlighted included dining halls will be open for takeout and mobile orders only; campus fitness centers will be closed; service centers in the residence halls will have shortened hours; maintenance requests will be limited to emergencies, and public seating in residence halls will be closed included lounges on floors. Capacity limits will be enforced in laundry rooms and computer labs.

"We must reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our Spartan community," Gore and Weismantel wrote. "If we increase our distance now, we vastly increase the chances of being able to come together safely later this semester."  

The latest measures come as students began another semester following the holiday break amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Though a vaccine is being distributed, students are not yet eligible to get it and new strains of the COVID-19 virus that are more contagious are circulating in Michigan.

UM and the Washtenaw County Health Department recommended on Wednesday that students living on and off the Ann Arbor campus stay in their residences to curtail the spread of B.1.1.7. variant, the strain of COVID-19 first identified in the United Kingdom. The state's first case involving the strain was identified in Washtenaw County.

On Sunday, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin said 22 cases of the variant now have been identified in the state. Of those, 16 cases are in Washtenaw County, and six in Wayne County. That's two more cases since Wednesday. All the cases in Washtenaw County are linked to UM students, Sutfin said.

Unlike UM, which last week asked students to adhere to a similar measure, MSU currently does not have anyone in the community with the  B.1.1.7.  or any other strain of the coronavirus that spreads more rapidly.

"Not that we know of yet," said Emily Guerrant, MSU spokeswoman. "We are screening our spit tests to watch for it, and Ingham County Health Department is watching for any of the variants as well."

As of Saturday, Michigan had confirmed 559,241 COVID-19 cases and 14,601 deaths linked to the virus. But 481,801 people are considered recovered. Statewide, the rates of new infections and of tests bringing positive results have dropped in recent weeks.