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ISU President Dietz Says COVID-19 Numbers Don't Tell The Whole Story

YouTube / Illinois State University
Illinois State University President Larry Dietz delivers his State of the University address in a pre-recorded video on Sept. 9, 2020.

Illinois State University President Larry Dietz in Thursday's State of the University address painted a picture of an institution that’s doing mostly well, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dietz noted a minimal decline in enrollment, after fears that students would instead opt for community college or a gap semester rather than pay full tuition for online classes. He lauded tireless efforts by administrators, faculty and staff to adapt to changing guidance.

Dietz commended students, too, for contributions to the Bloomington-Normal community and general willingness to follow the rules—with the exception of what Dietz called a small portion who are acting irresponsibly.

“The majority of you are the citizens that make Illinois State University proud,” Dietz said “But some of you can and must do better, or risk your association with this institution.”

Dietz also pushed back on media reports that "suggested Illinois State compares poorly to other Illinois public universities" on viral spread.

"The truth is, many state universities don’t test nearly as much as Illinois State, and don’t transparently report positive cases as does ISU. Other universities test so often that their positivity rates skew lower through simple division," Dietz said. "The ultimate fact is the coronavirus impacts Illinois universities in a similar fashion. The more students, the more likely the incidence of coronavirus, and creative counting and reporting doesn’t alter that fact."

Direct comparisons of public universities are difficult. The University of Illinois, for example, invented a new faster, cheaper COVID-19 test and has run it hundreds of thousands of times on students and employees since August. And the Urbana campus has changed testing rules as the school learned from data. The latest iteration requires graduate students, faculty, and staff to test just once a week because 95% of positive tests came from undergraduate students. Undergratuates at the U of I must still test twice per week. Northern Illinois University, by contrast, only began surveillance testing last week.

But some limited comparisons are possible. They suggest ISU has been harder hit than some peers. More than 6% of ISU's student body has tested positive, a higher portion than many other schools. The University of Iowa, Iowa State, and Mizzou all have a comparable number of total cases as Illinois State, but are much larger schools.

Iowa State offers one such comparison. Its first day of classes was Aug. 17, just like Illinois State. Last week, Iowa State ran 1,718 on-campus tests, turning up 250 positive results, for a 14.5% testing positivity rate. During that same 7-day period, Illinois State tested about 2,252 students, turning up 381 positive results, for a 16.9% positivity rate.

Dietz said as far as Illinois universities go, ISU’s testing strategy is second only to the U of I’s. He said he doesn’t believe the Urbana-Champaign campus has a clearer picture of its COVID-19 situation because of its larger testing capacity.

Still, Dietz said, ISU “would love to have that same testing protocol here,” adding that that could take six to 10 weeks to accomplish. Dietz said he believes more students would participate in voluntary surveillance testing if capacity was higher.

“Many have and I think more would, if we had the capacity to do that right now,” he said. “But our contract with [Reditus Labs] is a limited contract, and they only have the capacity to do so many a day.”

The current testing capacity is 2,500 tests a week, according to the university. About 6,700 students have been tested since the semester started, suggesting less than maximum use of capacity.

Reflecting on the start of the school year, Dietz said there’s not necessarily anything he’d do differently. He said, like other universities, ISU has been doing its best with the available guidance.

“What we’ve had to do is be as nimble as we can, knowing what we know at the particular time, and I think we’ve done that,” he said. “It’s difficult to do that with a large organization and turning some things on a dime.”

Dietz said the university shares the Bloomington-Normal community’s frustration in the rising COVID-19 caseload concentrated among college-age students. He said ISU will continue to work with the Town of Normal and landlords to try to reduce dangerous behavior by students off campus, where more than 80% of student cases have originated.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.
Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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