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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

How ISU Is Faring With COVID-19 Compared To Other Midwest College Towns

Iowa governor speaks
Charlie Neibergall
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds recently closed bars and nightclubs in six counties, including the homes of the University of Iowa and Iowa State University.

More than 1,023 Illinois State University students have tested positive for COVID-19—an alarming number given it’s only about two weeks into the fall semester.

It’s too early to say definitively how ISU is faring compared with other public universities in the Midwest. There are a lot of differences between campuses that make an apples-to-apples comparison difficult so early in the new academic year, such as ISU’s first day of classes (Aug. 17) happening one full week before other schools like Northern Illinois, Mizzou, the University of Iowa, and many others. While most campuses have online COVID data “dashboards,” their reporting methods vary greatly.

But preliminarily, it’s clear that COVID-19 has hit ISU harder than several other public universities in Illinois and adjacent states.

ISU reported 1,023 student cases as of Tuesday, nearly 5% of the student body. That’s a higher percentage of the student body than 12 other public universities examined by WGLT, though again some of those other schools did not resume classes until Aug. 24. (Student body sizes were based on fall 2019 enrollment, as fall 2020 is not available for most campuses.)

The University of Iowa was closest, with 922 positive student cases reported as of Monday. The Iowa City campus is larger than ISU, so that’s about 2.9% of the student body. Missouri State (24,100 students) is comparably sized to ISU (20,800 students), and it also started classes Aug. 17. Missouri State has seen 549 student cases in the past two weeks, or 2.3% of its student body.

Comparing ISU to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is difficult because of wildly different testing strategies.

U of I literally invented its own quicker, cheaper saliva-based test, so it can test students far more often. ISU plans to eventually piggyback on that testing model, but for now its on-campus testing options are slower, more expensive, and not available to faculty and staff. ISU also had to change its testing strategy last-minute after the federal government unexpectedly redirected its testing supplies to nursing homes.

ISU said it’s doing “more widespread testing than any state university in Illinois with the exception of the University of Illinois.” Since Aug. 17, ISU has conducted around 4,400 tests at three on-campus locations,  yielding a testing positivity rate of about 24% in the past week. U of I has done over 161,100 tests, with a positivity rate of less than 1%.

“As our surveillance testing ramps up, we expect that expanded testing will result in a lower positivity rate,” said John Baur, professor of chemistry and ISU’s COVID-19 testing coordinator.

As of Saturday, both ISU and U of I had reported between 700 and 800 positive cases among students, faculty, and staff. (U of I doesn’t regularly report student-only data, while ISU does.) But U of I is about twice the size of ISU, and it started classes one week after ISU did.

College town mitigations

In Normal, the spike in cases among ISU students prompted the Town of Normal on Friday to enact two emergency orders, including a temporary ban on large gatherings near campus.

Other college towns have taken similar steps. 

With about 415 students at the University of Missouri testing positive for the coronavirus and an alarming 44% weekly positivity rate for the surrounding county, the local health director on Friday ordered bars to stop serving alcohol at 9 p.m. and close by 10 p.m., The Associated Press reported.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds closed bars and nightclubs in six counties, including the homes of the University of Iowa and Iowa State University, which The New York Times reported saw greater numbers of new cases per capita over the past two weeks than any other metro area in the country. The White House urged Iowa leaders to go even further with their mitigations.

In the University of Iowa’s Johnson County, for example, the share of the population with a reported case (per capita) is 1 in 38, the worst for any of the 13 college towns reviewed by WGLT. McLean County’s per capita rate is 1 in 96 people, which is comparable to DeKalb County (NIU), Champaign County (U of I), and Missouri State’s home county.

At Missouri State, 80% of cases involve students living off-campus. That’s the same at ISU, where officials said Tuesday the “overall impact on the spread of infections at this time will not be curtailed significantly by the closing of residence halls.” 

ISU leaders tout several measures they say have helped mitigate the risk of COVID-19, including de-densifying dorms, shifting 80% of classes online, and encouraging faculty and staff to work remotely if their position allows.

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