IOWA CITY — With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations exploding across the state, Iowa’s public universities are warning their tens of thousands of students likely headed home this month to make a plan for the Thanksgiving holiday — including getting tested, if necessary.
Iowa State University — which, along with the University of Northern Iowa, ends its fall term the day before Thanksgiving — is offering asymptomatic testing to students departing for winter break. Testing, “even if you don’t feel sick,” is being offered there by appointment between Nov. 16 and 21.
In a campus message this week, ISU President Wendy Wintersteen cautioned that a negative result reflects only a point in time when it was taken. Those students who test positive “may need to complete their isolation period here before returning home.”
“While you can isolate at home, you must consider your travel arrangements,” she wrote to the campus. “Airlines and trains will not permit travelers with COVID-19, and some states have specific restrictions or requirements. Department of Residence isolation housing is available for students who live on campus.”
ISU is the only of Iowa’s three public universities that mandated testing in August before students could move in to the residence halls. In October, it began offering randomized asymptomatic testing on campus.
The University of Iowa — which Friday reported another 60 campus COVID-19 cases in two days, continuing its escalation after reports of 47 Wednesday and 35 Monday — is not offering testing to departing students without symptoms — but rather just to those with symptoms or confirmed exposure.
The UI announced earlier this week it will start offering asymptomatic testing for residence hall assistants as part of a pilot program.
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UNI has not offered asymptomatic testing. That campus, which Friday reported another 78 positive cases tested at its Student Health Center over the last week, is offering testing for symptomatic students or close contacts — like at the UI.
Unlike the other public campuses, the UI is not ending the fall semester at Thanksgiving. But it is moving all in-person classes to online after the holiday. In a campus message Friday, the university urged students to make a holiday plan.
“Thanksgiving recess begins November 22, and while we are all looking forward to the opportunity for rest and relaxation, it is important that we all continue to be mindful of COVID-19,” according to the UI Division of Student Life message. “The decisions we make during this time will have the potential to impact our health and the health of others.”
The top executive of the UI Hospitals and Clinics has urged Iowans avoid traditional holiday gatherings this year.
Hospitalizations across the state reached a record high of 912 as of Friday morning.
The UIHC reported it was caring for 42 adult COVID-19 inpatients — continuing its rise. It also reported 1,018 visits to its influenza-like-illness clinic, which it’s trying to staff up further.
And 32 UIHC employees Thursday tested positive, bringing that total to date to 833.
UI Student Life stressed that preparations are “especially important if you will see family and others who might be at higher risk for COVID-19 complications.”
“While this planning may include getting a test, health experts emphasize that a negative test result may occur early in a COVID-19 infection,” according to the message. “A negative test result does not guarantee that you are free of the virus, and you may still be able to spread the virus to others.”
And the campus suggested that students — 14 days before traveling — be sure to take measures like masking, hand washing, social distancing and limiting time in groups or venues like restaurants and bars.
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Although those admonitions have been in place all semester, ISU President Wintersteen’s message referenced a seeming COVID-19 fatigue. She noted the recent surge in cases “has been caused primarily by social events where people are not wearing face coverings and are not physically distancing.”
“Be extra vigilant,” she wrote. “While it’s tempting to relax safety measures around family and friends you trust, COVID-19 is still very much present in our community. Individuals can be contagious and pass the virus before they show symptoms or feel sick. Don’t let your guard down around anyone.”
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