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Health Experts Concerned About Another Coronavirus Spike As Kansas and Missouri College Students Ret

Kansas City health experts are worried about another COVID-19 outbreak as college students across Kansas and Missouri head home this week for Thanksgiving.

The University of Kansas Health System announced at its daily briefing Wednesday that 91 patients have active COVID-19 cases, with 47 in the intensive care unit and 21 on ventilators. That's a slight drop from the record numbers seen last weekend.

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the country, officials from the University of Kansas said students are the ones who should be worried about going home this holiday season.

“As we think about sending our students home, we're sending them out of the safest place in Kansas into hotspots everywhere else. So it's really the opposite problem,” said Dr. Doug Girod, KU's Chancellor.

Girod said case numbers have been relatively low since the school opened to a 9% positivity rate. Numbers dropped to 1.5% by October, an accomplishment Girod credited to students following safety guidelines and precautions.

Since then case numbers have skyrocketed back up to 6%, with dates of exposure lining up with Halloween. KU health experts said this confirmed their fears that holiday gatherings could be spreader events for students.

“Let's be real careful with that one because that could be even a bigger gathering than Halloween, and so what could come out of that could be even more difficult, I'm afraid,” said Dr. Dana Hawkinson, an infectious disease expert at the University of Kansas Health System.

KU is offering COVID-19 tests to students returning home, but Girod said they are still recommending students quarantine and follow safety guidelines for 10 to 14 days.

Chris Wilson, Vice President of System Integration and Innovation at the University of Kansas Health System, said quarantining times will also depend on the student’s activities while on campus.

“If a student has been quarantining for the prior 10 to 14 days, it's a different scenario than if that student has been at the bar since last Friday. The key is what the behavior has been prior to them returning home, once they do arrive home,” said Wilson.

Wilson said students’ on-campus living situation also needs to be considered when quarantining. For example, a person living alone is less likely to be exposed to the virus than those living in dorms or communal living, Wilson said.

When students return to campuses to begin the spring semester, KU officials said it will look a lot like when school opened in the fall with masking and social distancing guidelines. One difference will be medical-grade air filtration units the university is adding to 423 classrooms over winter break in the hopes it will allow more face-to-face activities.

Administering a potential vaccine will be the school’s biggest challenge next semester, according to Wilson. After looking at national polling, he said he’s also concerned that a considerable population of students may be unwilling to take the vaccine.

“Some of these 90% effective vaccines that we're seeing right now in the early data, but if only half the people are willing to take it, it's really only a 50% effective vaccine,” said Wilson.

The university has not decided yet if it will require the vaccination for all students, but might for those living in student housing owned by the school, said Wilson. So the school will continue requiring masks and social distancing even when the vaccine has been officially rolled out, he said.

Copyright 2020 KCUR 89.3