Boise State COVID surge threatens face-to-face classes, campus events

Barely one week into fall classes, Boise State University administrators sent a stern warning Wednesday: Rising coronavirus case numbers could force the university to close down face-to-face classes and cancel campus events.

“If campus infection rates continue to increase, we likely will face temporary, rolling closures, which may mean shifting face-to-face classes online or to hybrid mode, suspending or cutting back some campus-based services, delaying or canceling large gatherings, performances and athletic events, and temporarily returning to remote work,” President Marlene Tromp and other administrators said in an email to the campus community.

Campus cases are on pace to exceed last year’s numbers, and students who are testing positive this fall are reporting more severe symptoms.

The university’s warning came nine days after the start of fall semester — and nine days before Boise State’s first home football game of the season.

Classes at Boise State began Aug. 23, with a mask requirement in place for indoor public spaces and crowded outdoor spaces.

Nonetheless, case numbers nearly tripled during that first week of classes. On Friday, Boise State reported 56 active COVID-19 cases, 53 involving students.

A year ago, Boise State reported only eight cases during the first week of fall semester. Case numbers surged during the fall, reaching a one-week high of 121 cases in mid-November.

Last week’s case numbers weren’t the only troubling metric at Boise State. Nearly 6% of COVID-19 tests came back positive — well below the state’s overall test positivity rate, but above the 5% threshold that suggests an outbreak is out of control.

Administrators again urged students and staff to get vaccinated.

“What happens next is largely within the campus community’s control,” they wrote. “Vaccinations remain the safest and most effective way to prevent serious illness or death from COVID.”

Public universities cannot mandate staff or student vaccinations — under Gov. Brad Little’s executive order banning state agencies from requiring “vaccine passports.”

 

Here, in full, is the memo to the campus community:

We write to you today to update you on the state of the pandemic in Idaho — and the potential effects it could have on campus. Make no mistake, the state’s healthcare system is in crisis and is over or near capacity in many locations. Yesterday, Governor Brad Little activated the National Guard to help Idaho hospitals overwhelmed with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients. Governor Little relayed that the state has reached a level of risk not yet seen during the pandemic with only four adult ICU beds available in the entire state. This is cause for serious concern, as bed shortages not only impact COVID patients, but other people with serious health conditions, including heart attacks, accidents and other non-COVID related illnesses. Projections suggest the rate of infection will continue to increase through mid-October. Our healthcare facilities cannot sustain this kind of increased demand.

The fall semester began a week ago and already the number of infections in the campus community is on track to outpace what we experienced last year. Additionally, students testing positive for COVID have reported more severe symptoms than with prior variants. If campus infection rates continue to increase, we likely will face temporary, rolling closures, which may mean shifting face-to-face classes online or to hybrid mode, suspending or cutting back some campus-based services, delaying or canceling large gatherings, performances and athletic events, and temporarily returning to remote work. 

Two things are vitally important to us: the wellbeing of our community and delivering on our mission to teach, research and serve. We recognize the value of in-person learning and activities. Your commitment to following public health practices is critical to make that possible. Last year, our community followed those practices, and we had much better public health outcomes than many other institutions did. We believe our community can pull together and do the same this year.

What happens next is largely within the campus community’s control. The delta variant is significantly more contagious than earlier variants. Vaccinations remain the safest and most effective way to prevent serious illness or death from COVID. Boise State’s COVID Vaccination Clinic has appointments available and the vaccine is free to everyone. Secondary to getting vaccinated, you can protect yourself and our community by wearing your facial covering indoors except when eating, as well as outdoors when in close proximity to other people. Washing your hands frequently, particularly before eating and before touching your face, is also critical to avoid spreading COVID. 

If you have COVID symptoms or think you may have been exposed to someone with COVID, get tested. Boise State’s COVID Testing Center is open Monday through Friday, and residential students experiencing symptoms may also test on weekends. The test only takes about 5 minutes, and there are no out-of-pocket costs for Boise State students, faculty and staff. While you’re waiting for your test results, stay home unless you need to see your healthcare provider.

Vice presidents and student leaders are in the process of assessing what additional steps each division, unit or group can take to mitigate the risk of COVID spread; these changes will be communicated by divisional, unit or student leadership. We want to acknowledge and thank student leaders who have independently made the decision to move many of their fall welcome events online in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID. 

We are counting on you to do your part to keep our campus safe, healthy and open, and to ensure that those who are seriously ill can get the care they need when they need it. 

Be well,
Dr. Marlene Tromp, President
Alicia Estey, Vice President for University Affairs and Chief of Staff
Dr. John Buckwalter, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs
Jeramiah Dickey, Executive Director for Athletics
Matthew Ewing, Vice President for University Advancement
Dr. Nancy Glenn, Interim Vice President for Research and Economic Development
Mark Heil, Vice President for Finance and Administration and Chief Financial Officer
Dr. Edward Whipple, Interim Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management

 

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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