Oxford discovers spike in COVID-19 cases among Ole Miss students

Updated: Jun. 17, 2020 at 10:19 PM CDT
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OXFORD, Miss. (WLBT) - Mississippi universities plan to reopen in the fall, but there’s a big unknown as they assess their risks. And it’s highlighted with a new spike in cases among Ole Miss students.

When a university student tests positive for COVID-19, it gets reported as a case for their permanent county of residence... not that college town. So, how do universities plan for mitigating the risks when students return if they don’t have a full picture?

“If they get tested at a clinic in town, the only way we’d know that is if they picked up the phone and called us,” explained Dr. Noel Wilkin, University of Mississippi Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs.

And that’s what the University of Mississippi is asking it’s faculty, staff and students to do, self-report regardless of where they’re tested. Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill was alerted last week to a rise in student cases by President and Family Nurse Practitioner at Ole Town Med, Laura Hill.

“We had a few students that came up here because they had been around another student who was positive,” said Hill. “So, we started testing anyone who had come into contact, symptoms or not. Ninety-percent of the positives we’ve been getting have been completely asymptomatic.”

Tannehill checked with three other clinics in town and found that 162 Ole Miss students had tested positive in those four locations since June 1.

“As of yesterday, we had a 195 cases since March 19 and so it almost doubled our number in the past two weeks,” explained Tannehill about how the official numbers don’t account for those non-resident students.

And social gatherings may be the point of transmission.

“We are aware that an event took place, a social event in the city,” described Wilkin. ”As soon as we heard about that event, we gave a clear directive that all social and recruiting events are suspended for the summer in all cities for fraternities and sororities.”

The city and university are working together to be proactive.

“I know that every college town is dealing with this. Oxford’s not unique in this situation,” noted Tannehill. “But we have created our own form that we will be asking our own clinics to give us information. Several that I’ve spoken with have said... I can give it to you once a week. I don’t know that I can add another layer to our reporting everyday which is understandable. So, I’m hoping that the Department of Health will be able to figure out a way to offer us those numbers.”

The University says it is also working with the Department of Health and plans to have staff available to help with contact tracing if cases connected to campus arise.

We checked with the other public universities to ask how they plan to try and mitigate risks for students’ returns and if there’s anything in place to try and learn if non-resident students test positive?

This response is from Mississippi State University Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Regina Hyatt:

“Mississippi State University is working in concert with evolving guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Mississippi State Department of Health, and MSU’s University Health Services to craft proactive strategies to effectively screen returning students, faculty, staff, and visitors.

“The policy formulation process continues and we will share those strategies with the public as soon as we have completed discussions with our university stakeholders. Our summer sessions are being held by online delivery, so it would be premature to finalize our screening protocols until we’re closer to the actual Fall 2020 return date.

“Since the first impact of the pandemic in Mississippi, we have maintained strict screening protocols on our campus and will continue to do so.”

The IHL Commissioner created a Safe Start Task Forcel. The task force’s full report will be released Thursday, which we are told will provide some insight on how the campuses will approach this issue.

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