OSU COVID-19 cases rise, students demand action

The Coalition of Graduate Employees was in negotiations with the university for six months to try to establish on-demand testing on campus.

Posted: Feb 22, 2021 12:29 PM
Updated: Feb 22, 2021 7:40 PM

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- As Benton County remains at the Extreme Risk level, questions circulate on what it’s going to take to slow the spread.

Students on Oregon State University's campus say greater action needs to be taken as case counts continue to rise.

OSU's Coalition of Graduate Employees was in negotiations with the university for six months to try to establish on-demand testing on campus.

Nancy Vargas is a Public Health PhD student at OSU and part of a Coalition. She, along with many others, are demanding action.

“One of the issues we’re fighting for is that people working on campus have access to testing at any point,” Vargas said. “I’m asking OSU to treat us like human beings and to really consider the effects OSU’s decisions have on our local communities."

She shared how the pandemic has affected her personally.

Vargas' grandmother and aunt in Mexico became infected with COVID-19 and died -- she says they were low-income and didn’t have access to testing.

“I had to sit in these negotiations across three people who made $600,000 a year combined while my grandma was slowly dying and while my mom cried in pain," Vargas said.

Vargas said she doesn't want anyone to go through what she went through.

OSU spokesperson Steve Clark said the increase in cases among students is “concerning,” and the university saw the trend begin about two and a half weeks ago.

“Faculty and staff case counts seem to be relatively flat,” Clark said. “The prevalence of our overall positivity among our faculty, staff and students has been about two percent since fall of 2020 and since September. That's about a third less than the overall Benton County general population.”

For that reason, Clark said testing on OSU’s Corvallis campus continues to expand. Students in residence halls are tested weekly. The university was initially testing 500 students a week, but that number has now jumped to 2,600. Those living off-campus in congregate living settings, especially those in sororities and fraternities, are strongly encouraged to get tested. This is in addition to the TRACE testing program.

Others students who are part of the Coalition weighed in.

“The drastic uptick in confirmed cases only points to the dire need for testing on campus for all of Benton County residents,” Physics PhD student Noah Vaughan said. “UO established testing for all students, employees and Lane County residents last fall. As a consequence, they’ve mitigated outbreaks putting Lane County on track to move from extreme to high risk. Testing is key to prevention. OSU has capacity to do it, and employees expect OSU to leverage their resources and make it happen.”

KEZI 9 News asked Clark his thoughts about the widespread on-demand testing that many are demanding.

“On-demand testing is not something that is recommended among students or young adults by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by OHA or by local health departments,” Clark said. “What is important is those folks who have positions, living arrangements or job requirements that bring them into frequent close contact with others -- to engage in testing on a frequent basis.”

Clark said the university is focusing on prevalence testing on a weekly basis, as well as testing for students who are symptomatic.

Tilottama Chatterjee is a biochemistry and biophysics PhD student, as well as a graduate employee at OSU.

“We need something that’s more accessible for people who work on campus and who are risking their lives over here for the university just to get their paychecks,” Chatterjee said.

But, university officials said they are aware of the impact cases from campus have on the community at large. However, Clark said that's not means to point fingers.

“We know that in Benton County our students are contributing more cases than other populations within Benton County,” Clark said. “That is not a reason for students to be criticised, and it's not a reason for students to feel guilty. It's just the facts.”

He said the university is focused on the continuation of testing and emphasizing public safety -- and that will be increased even further in the spring.

“We also encourage through our Human Resources department -- any employee who has had close contact to or with an individual who has been tested positive to also be tested," Clark said. "But simply going out and testing everyone right now is not the best health practice for reducing the risk and spread of a COVID-19, as indicated to us by the CDC, OHA and others."

Chatterjee shared her thoughts.

“I’m sure TRACE can be cited as random testing," Chatterjee said. "That’s true. I don't think it counts as prevalence testing if its not getting us an accurate measure of the number of cases on campus right now.”

In the latest data from the university, 108 positive cases came from the university during the week of Feb. 18, with another 119 the week prior.

“Cases have been rising ever since January,” Chatterjee said. “If you look at the second week of January, nothing has gone below 50 cases per week. In the last two weeks, it’s gone over 100 cases per week. That coincides perfectly with the reopening of the Dixon Recreation Center.”

“We need OSU to take a stand and provide on-demand COVID-19 testing county-wide to protect our most vulnerable communities,” Vargas said.

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