As Texas college towns emerge as coronavirus hot spots, universities try to keep students from infecting locals

Fans walk toward the stadium for the first home football game of the season at the University of Texas at Austin. Students had to test negative for the coronavirus before attending the game. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for the Texas Tribune


SEPT. 22, 2020

In Texas — as around the country — college towns are emerging as new hot spots for the coronavirus, with cases surging among student populations and administrators scrambling to keep infections from reaching the broader population.

In the counties where four-year college students make up at least 10% of the population, including Lubbock, Hays and Brazos, cases have grown 34% since Aug. 19, according to a Texas Tribune analysis. That’s compared to 23% in counties with a smaller proportion of students, including larger metropolitan areas like Houston and Dallas that also house universities. The number of new cases each day and other key metrics like COVID-19 hospitalizations have been trending down across the state.

The Texas counties where university students make up the biggest share of the population are home to Texas State University, Texas Tech University, Stephen F. Austin State University, Sul Ross State University, Sam Houston State University, and several A&M campuses, including the flagship in College Station, Tarleton State University, Prairie View A&M University, Texas A&M University-Kingsville and Texas A&M University-Commerce.

Colleges are “places where we’re starting to see a lot of spread,” said Stephen Kissler, an infectious disease researcher at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Of course, diseases don’t stay isolated in the populations where they start. That’s the big concern lately, trying to make sure the virus doesn’t spread into the surrounding community.”

For the past four weeks, local data shows, the Travis County ZIP code with the fastest-growing case count was the stretch including the University of Texas at Austin’s West Campus, where many students live. Lubbock County — home to Texas Tech University — has consistently seen one of the state’s highest growth rates of new cases since on-campus instruction resumed. And at Texas A&M University, clusters have already emerged among sororities and in a Corps of Cadets dorm.

University leaders say they have little control over the off-campus parties that are driving spread of the virus. But the infections that spread at those events are likely to ripple into the broader communities where colleges sit, infecting locals when college students ride public transportation or serve older patrons at their off-campus jobs.

It will take time for data to show the extent to which campus cases have spread into broader local communities — as long as a month, Kissler said. But experts say it is already beginning to happen.

“Communities that brought students back to campus do run the risk of having increased cases, and I think we’re already starting to see that,” said Angela Clendenin, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health.

That trend is clear in Lubbock, where alongside rapid growth in cases, Health Authority Dr. Ron Cook said there has been a “mild uptick” in both rates of hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions since students returned to campus. A huge share of the county’s new cases are people under 30.

Since Aug. 1, Texas Tech has logged more than 1,400 cases of COVID-19, including at least 1,266 among students.

Meanwhile, Texas Tech parties have gone viral on social media, and university officials are investigating a student who made headlines this month after posting a video claiming that she attended a house party despite having COVID-19.

“It’s not about me,” Cook said, in a mantra he has repeated to college students. “It’s about who I might infect. And that person you might infect might be somebody’s grandmother on chemotherapy.”

It’s a message health officials and university administrators are sharing all over the state. Public health authorities and higher education officials anticipated rising case counts among students — who are less likely to suffer severe symptoms than older people — and are now focused on the risk those students pose to more vulnerable people in their cities.

Earlier this month, UT-Austin students had to show a negative coronavirus test to get in the gates for a football game against University of Texas at El Paso, even though the rest of the 15,000 fans did not.

“A lot of the focus has been trying to mitigate student to other spread,” UT-Austin’s interim president Jay Hartzell said at a Texas Tribune Festival event earlier this month.

So far, Hartzell claimed, those efforts have been successful: “If there’s spread from our students to the city, so far it’s not observable in the data in a strong way.”

Contact tracing done by university staff has shown evidence of transmission among students, but “no strong signal” of spread to the broader community, spokesperson J.B. Bird said. He added that the university is testing its population at a much higher rate than Travis County as a whole.

According to Austin’s interim health authority, Mark Escott, during the first two weeks of September, the University of Texas at Austin accounted for almost 40% of the cases in Travis County— a figure that far exceeds its proportion of the county’s 1.2 million people.

“College-age students are far less likely to be hospitalized,” Escott said. But “we have to make sure they’re not spreading this to other members of the community.”

Of course, the coronavirus can be severe — or fatal — even for young and healthy people. Cook said there have been a few hospitalizations among students in the Lubbock area.

In Texas, less than 1% of the state’s nearly 15,000 known COVID-19 fatalities were people under 30, according to the latest state data. New research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the virus proved far deadlier for young people of color than for those who were white.

And scientists still have a great deal to learn about the long-term impacts of the disease, which has put healthy people on ventilators alongside those with chronic illnesses. Researchers have found evidence of myocarditis — inflammation of the heart muscle — among athletes, including some college football players in top conferences.

University leaders say despite the risks, it was important that students who wanted to could return to campus this fall. Some students struggled to transition to virtual learning, a markedly different college experience from the social atmosphere and hands-on instruction of traditional live classes. Online learning is further complicated for low-income students, who are at a disproportionate risk of contracting COVID-19 and who often lack access to essential services such as reliable internet.

“We felt that it was important to give a choice,” Renu Khator, chancellor of the University of Houston System, said at a TribFest event.

Clendenin said universities have done a good job of developing systems that allow students to return to campus while ensuring safeguards are in place to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Desks are staggered to allow for physical distancing, and administrators extended the time between classes to keep students from crowding hallways. Many schools opted for a hybrid model, offering both in-person and online instruction. And several schools are requiring masks on campus and in college stadiums.

“It’s understandable that in their desire to return to normal, [students] would engage in usual behaviors,” like attending parties or drinking at bars, Clendenin said. “It’s important not to condemn them, but to find ways to help them engage in normal activities in a safe manner.”

At Texas A&M’s flagship College Station campus, reopening has “been reasonably successful in that there’s nothing that’s happened so far that we didn’t expect,” said John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, at a Texas Tribune Festival event earlier this month. “We expected an uptick; 90% of that is among 20- to 25-year-olds. So it’s students — 90% of those are asymptomatic.”

In College Station, Sharp said, professors are teaching behind plexiglass, and classes run late in the evening so students don’t crowd buildings.

Faculty members are effective messengers to students about the importance of health precautions, he said.

“Yeah, you may be asymptomatic if you get it, and it’s no big deal to you guys, but I’m … 65 years old, and I could die if I get this from you. So that starts sinking home with them,” Sharp said.

So far, just one faculty member has tested positive.

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