Data says WVU students having little impact on community spread in Mon County

MORGANTOWN — The spike in COVID-19 cases in Monongalia County — forcing public schools to begin the year with remote learning and prompting cancellation of extra-curricular activities — has been almost exclusively driven by cases with in the West Virginia University student population.

But the virus has not spread throughout the county or into surrounding areas.

That was the conclusion drawn by Monongalia County Health Officer Lee Smith as he presented data compiled since the beginning of July to local officials on Thursday.

“The [WVU students] amount of input causing community spread is very minimal,” Dr. Smith explained.

Click here to see Mon County COVID-19 Data

On Wednesday, Gov. Jim Justice announced changes to how WVU students are counted in the metric that determines the status of county school systems. COVID-19 positive students isolating at Arnold Hall are now counted as a congregate setting, much like nursing homes residents, rather than individuals.

“Students are very quickly isolated and put in quarantine,” said WVU Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Rob Alsop. “We do think there is low risk of community spread with the protocols we have at Arnold [Hall].”

Smith detailed data going back to July, when Monongalia County experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases, then primarily due to a combination of travel, no face coverings, and people gathering in large numbers. Those numbers declined following executive orders from Governor Justice mandating the use of masks and ordering the closure of bars in the county.

Cases began to trend upward again at the end of August, as a limited number of WVU students arrived in town ahead of the start of the fall semester.

Smith explained that as positive case numbers among WVU students grew, cases throughout the county saw little change. For the 7-day period between Sept. 7 and Sept. 15, new cases per day identified in the WVU student population ranged from 39.5 to 22.0. In the rest of the community, the number of new cases per day topped out at 5.4.

Another indicator that the virus has remained largely contained within the WVU student population, according to Smith, is the fact that surrounding counties have not experienced a spike in cases.

Officials estimate that 15,000 people live outside the county but commute to Monongalia County every day for work. As of Thursday, Preston, Taylor, and Wetzel Counties were the “green” category on the Department of Health and Human Resources County Alert System map.

Marion and Harrison were both in the “yellow” category. Smith added Fayette and Greene Counties in Pennsylvania would also be considered “green” counties under West Virginia’s metrics.

“We’re very encouraged by the conversation taking place and that Charleston is allowing it to happen,” said Monongalia County Schools Superintendent Dr. Eddie Campbell.

Wednesday’s change to the metric has drawn sharp criticism from some, including both the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers West Virginia. Commissioner Tom Bloom emphasized, no one came with preconceived notions.

“Let the numbers speak for themselves,” Bloom said.