The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa made headlines late last month as its student coronavirus case count ballooned to more than 500 within days of classes starting. It seemed, to many, like the latest implosion of college reopening plans.
But a month later — after temporary bar closures, pleas from administrators and a host of new rules — coronavirus infections at the school are trending down.
For now, at least.
New cases have dropped “sharply” for three weeks, notes the University of Alabama’s latest news release. Forty-eight additional infections were recorded at the Tuscaloosa campus this week, down 60 percent from last week’s 119 and just a fraction of the 846 cases added from Aug. 28 to Sept. 3.
“I think we’re cautiously optimistic, but it’s amazing, the work that’s been done,” said Richard Friend, dean of the College of Community Health Sciences, in an interview with The Washington Post.
The school turned to strict new limits on campus life to stem the virus’s spread. Commons areas were closed, student gatherings halted, visitors prohibited and suspensions threatened. The mayor of Tuscaloosa closed bars, warning that the local health system could become overwhelmed.
By Sept. 11, the university’s vice president for student life announced that some rules could soften again. Dining rooms could reopen, certain approved events could resume, and students in the same residence halls could start visiting each other’s rooms again.
Bars, notoriously ripe for superspreader events, started to reopen in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 8, as school officials said the tide seemed to be turning.
“We need to … ease the restrictions carefully and monitor as we go,” Friend said, warning that “as quickly as we saw it come down, we can see it go back up.” It can take weeks to gauge the effect of changes, he said, and the school may need to tighten rules again.
Other colleges that experienced large outbreaks have seen similar improvements. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, the rate of positive tests spiked in late August but has since dipped to 0.3 percent, after the school embraced an undergraduate “lockdown” for two weeks.