It began as a trickle of coronavirus infections as college students arrived for the fall semester. Soon that trickle became a stream, with campuses reporting dozens, and sometimes hundreds of new cases each day.
Now the stream feels like a flood. In just the past week, a New York Times survey has found, American colleges have recorded more than 36,000 additional infections, bringing the total of 88,000 cases since the pandemic began.
Not all those cases are new, and the increase is partly the result of more schools beginning to report the results of more testing. But The Times survey of 1,600 colleges also shows how widely the contagion has spread, with schools of every type and size, and in every state reporting infections.
Only about 60 of the campus cases have resulted in death — mostly of college staff members — and only a small number have resulted in hospitalizations. But public health experts say the rising number also underscores an emerging reality: Colleges and universities have, as a category, become hot spots for virus transmission, much as hospitals, nursing homes and meat packing plants were earlier.
Hoping to salvage some sense of normalcy — along with lost revenue from housing fees and out-of-state tuition — many schools invested heavily in health measures to bring at least some students back to campus.
But outbreaks have forced course correction after correction.
The State University of New York at Oneonta sent students home after the virus spun out of control in less than two weeks, with more than 500 cases. And the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign mounted one of the most comprehensive safety plans, requiring more than 40,000 students to be tested for the virus twice a week, and barring them from campus buildings without app verification that the latest test was negative. But, some students continued partying after they received a positive test result, and hundreds were infected.
A lockdown brought the number of new cases at the university down again. But its surge pushed its metro regions toward the top of the list of U.S. areas with most cases per capita, as did spikes at universities in Oxford, Miss., and Athens, Ga.