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CU-Boulder sees dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases; health dept. 'strongly recommends' all students quarantine for 2 weeks

Cumulative cases so far this year stand at 308, jumping by 115 between weeks two and three alone.

BOULDER, Colo. — Positive, cumulative cases of COVID-19 at the University of Colorado-Boulder have spiked dramatically since the start of the fall semester, prompting the chancellor to issue a letter urging students to do their part.

"We need to stop the recent rise in positive COVID-19 cases immediately by wearing face coverings, avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people, practicing physical distancing and staying home when experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms," the letter says.

The number of positive diagnostic tests through CU Boulder Medical Services stands at 308 to date, jumping from 13 in week one, to 90 in week two and all the way up to 205 in week three. The cumulative data so far runs from Aug. 24 to Sept. 13, the letter says.

Of the 308 positive cases confirmed so far, 29% are among on-campus residents and 71% are among individuals living off campus.

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"As the majority of our cases are off campus, we are collaborating closely with our partners in the city, county and state to discuss options. We expect we will soon deploy new testing strategies and additional measures in an effort to change the behaviors contributing to the increase," Chancellor Phil DiStefano wrote in the letter.

The letter also says the information from CU-Boulder's contact tracing program shows that the most common factors in positive cases are "participation in large gatherings, particularly among a few sororities, fraternities and other multi-student residences on University Hill, along with a failure to wear face coverings and practice physical distancing."

In response to the increase in cases, Boulder County Public Health (BCPH) on Tuesday afternoon issued "a strong recommendation" to every CU Boulder student living in Boulder to quarantine in their Boulder home or residence hall for 14 days. 

"Individuals should not leave their residence unless it is for work, class, or getting food to take care of children or parents, or medical attention (including to get tested) that cannot be provided remotely," BCPH said in a news release.

Jeff Zayach, BCPH executive director, said while this isn’t a perfect solution, it’s the department's hope that it will halt the current spread of the virus and allow to better control the transmission of this virus in the county.

BCPH said the university "is supporting the measure and communicating its clear expectations to students that it be followed."

Residents at four sorority houses have been quarantined to date.

"Based on information from contact tracing, there have not been transmissions identified from when an infectious individual attended an in-person class," the chancellor's letter says.

CU-Boulder has several precautions in place with respect to the physical set-up of classes. They include:

  • Required face coverings
  • Decreased density
  • Physical distancing of at least six feet
  • Improved ventilation 

"Boulder County Public Health does not currently have concerns about our in-person classes because of the precautions we’re following," the chancellor wrote. "If problematic behavior does not change, we will need to reconsider the campus status."

> Read the full letter here.

Still, while the university has safety measures in place and the chancellor addressed them, some students and faculty members at the university have criticized CU's data portal, especially this weekend, when it took the university until Monday to disclose that the number of daily cases had doubled on Friday.

Andrea Tilstra, a doctoral candidate in sociology and a graduate research assistant in the Institute for Behavioral Sciences, argued those numbers are important.

“The university is not a standalone institution,” Tilstra said. “It exists within a community and when community members cannot make decisions based on accurate data then we have issues.”

CU only tests for COVID on campus Monday through Friday and posts results of tests the next business day. On Friday, the university reported 45 positive results from Thursday and on Monday, the university reported 89 positive results from Friday.

“[Community members are] basing their decisions on the most recent information they have and when the most recent information they have is from Friday… they’re not able to adjust their behaviors according to the most accurate data,” Tilstra said.

The university responded with a statement when 9NEWS asked about data lags:

Currently, the dashboard is updated each morning, Monday through Friday, with the previous business day's finalized statistics. We have been making improvements to the dashboard since its launch in August and we will continue to look for opportunities for improvement where possible.

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