Wingate University students return to campus over the next few days as North Carolina is struggling to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. Gov. Roy Cooper said this week that the state is in a “dire situation,” and vaccination is still weeks away for most University students and employees.
In an effort to get the semester off to as safe a start as possible in the midst of such circumstances, all students and employees are being offered rapid Covid tests upon their arrival to campus. Health Center staff members are setting up shop at seven locations around the Wingate campus, giving Covid-19 tests that return a result in 15 minutes. Employees are strongly encouraged to get tested, while students are required to. The Health Center is usually ready with their results before students have even started unloading their car.
Sherrie McCaskill, director of the Health Center, says that so far everyone is taking the testing seriously.
“I think this semester people understand better than they did last semester the importance of it,” she says.
Wingate escaped the fall semester in pretty good shape. Aside from a spike in infections in early October, the case count on campus was manageable, and students remained on campus, as planned, until the Thanksgiving break.
The spring semester presents new challenges. Although two vaccines have been authorized for use, the rollout is slow, we’re months away from herd immunity, and the pandemic is only gaining strength. On Saturday, North Carolina reported an all-time high of 11,581 new Covid-19 cases. Nearly 4,000 people in the state are currently hospitalized for the disease, and the positivity rate is almost 15%.
Last week, Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said that 96 of the state’s 100 counties were in the orange or red zones for community spread of Covid-19. “This is the most worried I’ve been,” she said.
Wingate’s return-to-campus protocols should give the University community some measure of comfort. Once a student receives a negative test result, they are given an “all clear” wristband, which they’ll need in order to have access to most areas of campus, such as the W.T. Harris Dining Hall
The rapid tests Wingate is conducting are 96-97 percent accurate, McCaskill says. For asymptomatic people, there is a slightly higher possibility of receiving a false positive from the rapid test, so anyone who tests positive is immediately given a PCR test, which is considered more accurate. They are then isolated or asked to go back home until those results come back, which usually takes 24 to 48 hours. McCaskill says test kits are being delivered soon that will enable Wingate to get PCR results back within 40 minutes.
Student-athletes and student workers returned to campus on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Returning students are arriving today, tomorrow and this coming Tuesday (Monday is a holiday, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.). New students will move in later next week.
Other measures Wingate is taking to ensure that residential students are able to remain on campus all semester include the use of a revised academic calendar. Classes begin on Jan. 21, which is later than normal, in an effort to enable any Covid cases that resulted from holiday gatherings to have run their course. All classes will be remote until Feb. 1. There will be no spring break this year, with several “recovery days” built into the calendar instead.
The University also learned a few lessons last semester that could help out. “We came through the other side, and I think we learned a lot, and I think we’ve got some good systems in place now,” McCaskill says. “I feel as good as I can about going into this semester.”
For one thing, the Health Center staff now has nearly a year of using telehealth under its belt. Last March they had to quickly figure out protocols and guidelines for using technology to see patients remotely, but now, McCaskill says, the process is smooth. About half of Health Center visits are virtual now.
One challenge last semester was making it easy for students in isolation to contact the appropriate department if they were in need of anything, since often students are rushed to their isolation room after receiving a positive test result and don’t have time to pack everything they need. “We started out with Campus Safety being your resource number if you need anything, but that quickly became overwhelming for them to manage 24 hours a day,” McCaskill says. “And obviously us in the Health Center, we were all hands on deck with testing and managing the patients we had.”
This year, there is a dedicated phone line for use by students who are in isolation. “The person manning the phone line would then reach out to the appropriate department, whether the student’s meal got missed or whether they got there and they were missing a shower curtain in the isolation space, or maybe they needed a thermometer,” McCaskill says.
Other restrictions from last semester will remain in place: no visitors (even other Wingate students) in residential spaces or rooms; no gatherings of 10 or more people not wearing face coverings or social distancing; limited seating in the dining hall and “to go” service only in the Klondike; and students must remain in their residential spaces from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. The University will also continue to conduct random and targeted surveillance Covid testing.
Jan. 14, 2021