COVID-19 Coronavirus Infections Viruses

Not long before I hit the publish button Wednesday on this story about how UNCG students started moving into dorms last weekend, the New York Times came out with this report on COVID-19 cases at the nation's colleges and universities.

The Times' tally: about 6,600 so far on the 270 campuses it surveyed.

This is almost certainly an undercount. Scratch that — it most certainly is an undercount. (A pandemic is no time to hide behind weasel words such as "maybe," "perhaps" and, ah, "almost certainly.") The Times' database doesn't include a bunch of cases connected to some local schools that I and other media outlets have reported on. Also — and this might be the more important factor — the Times report doesn't include numbers from about 4,000 other two-year and four-year schools. (The Times noted that it contacted about 1,000 institutions; most didn't respond or refused to disclose their numbers.) 

According to the Times' list and this News & Observer story, Appalachian State University has more COVID-19 cases than any other North Carolina school. Nationally, only 15 institutions have reported more cases, and most are big public flagships (Texas, Georgia, Washington, Florida, California-Berkeley, UCLA) or just plain big (Central Florida, South Florida, Texas A&M).

Appalachian State has had 94 cases connected to the school, according to the Times. According to the university's own COVID-19 dashboard, however, that number is up to 101 as of today. The initial surge of cases was among contractors working on campus construction projects. (App says 41 contractors have tested positive.) Since then, there has a rising number of student cases — from 14 as of June 30 to 49 as of today. App State hasn't identified which students have gotten ill, but student-athletes have been returning to Boone in phases since mid-June. Summer school, meanwhile, is online.

Closer to home, the Times said N.C. A&T has reported four cases. A&T's chancellor told trustees this week that the university has seen nine cases (four employees, five student-athletes). The Times said UNCG has reported no cases, In fact, a UNCG student tested positive in March, and 36 contractors working on the new nursing and instructional building reportedly tested positive in late May. The Times also said that High Point University has had no cases. In April, however, a HPU employee died of the coronavirus.

The Times report, meanwhile, lists no cases at Duke University. It didn't take the N&O long to find in its own archives this story that about 30 people connected to Duke, most of them grad students, brought the coronavirus back to Durham after traveling internationally over spring break.

So what's the real number of COVID-19 cases on college campuses? It's more than 6,600, that's for sure. How much more is anyone's guess.

You can count on that number growing, too. Remember, there has been little on-campus activity anywhere since March. As A&T Chancellor Harold Martin told university trustees this week, "we can expect that there will be employees and students who will contract the virus" when campus reopens in August.

How many more cases? We're about to find out.

P.S.: Here are the Times' case counts of other area schools I didn't mention above: 12 at Winston-Salem State, nine at Elon University, and none at either Wake Forest or UNC School of the Arts. There's no data for small colleges (Bennett, Greensboro, Guilford, Salem) or for any N.C. community college.

Staff writer John Newsom covers higher education for the News & Record of Greensboro and the Winston-Salem Journal.

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