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DeKALB – After two weeks of COVID-19 positivity rates under 2% and an average of less than three new cases per day, Northern Illinois University Chief of Staff Matt Streb said he's still hearing people claim the school is driving the current spike of cases across the region and county.
"It's probably an understandable knee-jerk reaction," Streb said. "If you look across the country there are many colleges struggling with cases. So it's an understandable knee-jerk reaction. But if you look at the data, if anything, we're driving DeKalb's positivity rating down."
After a spike of 73 new cases reported on Sept. 8 representing a four-day climb, and reports of several large gatherings with students partying over weekends, the school announced a two-week suspension of in-person classes and a shift to remote learning. Students returned on Sept. 28, and since then there have only been 52 new cases of the virus – and 11 of those were on the first day back.
Daily COVID-19 reports from NIU fall in the single digits these days. In all, there have been 322 total positive tests, and 298 of those have recovered as of Wednesday.
Streb said the in-person class break was a much-needed reset of mental attitudes for students.
"I think people saw that there were consequences to actions that were not consistent with what we wanted," Streb said. "But I think it really goes back to more of an adjustment for students."
Streb gave an example of a group of three roommates going out to eat with their neighbors, maybe a group of four or five.
"That seems completely harmless, but if one of is positive – and we may be asymptomatic – now all of a sudden you potentially have five or six cases," Streb said. "It's not that you're doing anything wrong. You'd normally go out to dinner all the time. You just need to be a little more aware of the challenges of that in this environment. I think it takes a little time for students to adjust."
Because whatever rules are in place ahead of time, Streb said, experiencing them in practice is a whole different ballgame.
"We had a lot of plans we put out before the semester on how we would react to COVID-19 and all that," Streb said. "But until you experience what that looks like, it takes time to adjust your behaviors. I think our students have learned a lot over the course of the last several weeks."
Streb said the biggest thing was finding the weak points and take care of them.
He said large gatherings was one of those, but there was also an outbreak among three different athletic teams that led to a two-week quarantine for men's basketball, men's golf and football that ended at the start of September.
"We knew where a lot of our pressure points were and a lot of challenges were and were able to act pretty quickly [react] to stop anything further from happening," Streb said. "And that's pretty important. I can't stress the speed in which you move to help mitigate the spread."
Streb said that while look at overall trends is important, it shouldn't get in the way of acting quickly to stem the tide of a resurgence in the virus.
He said the school conducts contact tracing and quarantines on symptomatic students before a positive test to help get a jump. The university also conducts surveillance testing, a program which tests about 125 students a day at random as an attempt to better assess and catch viral outbreaks on campus more quickly to mitigate continued community spread.
That's why the school went from 73 cases reported at the start of that week after Labor Day (that represented a four-day total) to announcing the closure by the end of the week.
"That's why if you go back to the pause, I think it was, Week 2 of the semester," Streb said. "When we looked at it, we talked to the health department, we were a little bit concerned about the numbers we had. We were a little bit concerned where the county was going. We said 'Let's not be afraid to act quickly here. If we act quickly maybe we can turn things around.' And I think we have."
DeKalb's health region currently is under further restrictions because of an increase in positivity rates, and after almost two weeks has continued to rise. A seven-day rolling positivity increase of over 8% triggered the mitigations, and it was last reported at 10.1%. DeKalb has been over the 8.0% mark for the last four days and is at 8.8%.
The highest rate NIU''s surveillance testing has returned is 5% the week of Sept. 21, and the two weeks since have been 0.7% and 1.7%.
"First of all, it's important for us to remain successful to help our region," Streb said. "I know some people have blamed NIU for the problems in the region and I would disagree with that. It's not reasonable to expect we're going to have no cases. And our employees live in the area, too. We have absolutely no evidence of cases spread in a classroom. We have very little evidence of employees being exposed as a result of their work."
Streb said that the relationship between the school and its partners – including Northwestern Medicine and the DeKalb County Health Department – has been invaluable.
"There's a lot of universities that don't have the relationship with the health department that we do," Streb said. "I think that's been a great benefit to us. And Northwestern Medicine, I can't say enough about our relationship with them. They've been doing all of our surveillance testing for us. And they've been engaged with student-athlete testing."