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San Diego State confines students to dorms as COVID-19 cases jump

A sign reminds students and others on campus to wear a mask at San Diego State University.
A sign warns students and others to wear a mask on campus at San Diego State University.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego State University announced that starting Saturday night it is ordering students who live on campus to stay in their dorms for the rest of the Labor Day weekend in response to the continuing rise in COVID-19 cases.

Under the order, students will be allowed to leave for essentials such as food, medical care and supplies, school officials said. The university also asked students living off campus, in the College Area, to take the same precautions.

The stay-at-home order will be in place from 10 p.m. Saturday until 6 a.m. on Tuesday.

The edict comes one day after SDSU announced that the number of students who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 had jumped by 120, to the 184 mark. SDSU also said the county is investigating multiple COVID-19 clusters within the university.

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SDSU President Adela de la Torre complained Friday that the school was dealing with a “plague of parties” that were contributing to the spread of the virus. But De la Torre did not crack down until about 10 days after students arrived on campus.

At the same time, UC San Diego is running into problems ahead of its fall-semester start later this month. The school announced Saturday that it has found traces of the coronavirus in waste water from Revelle College. It immediately began human testing to look for the source.

Scientists and educators are trying to explain why students everywhere are acting contrary to their own interests, undermining their pricey pursuit of a rousing college experience.

The answer, the experts say, involves everything from human biology to the conflicting messages students are getting about COVID-19 from adults.

At a news conference Friday, De la Torre stressed that long-term results in the effort to curb the virus will come not from enforcement but from educating students and changing their behavior.

“We need to have an environment where students understand that we want them to be proactive in testing,” she said, adding that positive educational messages will lead to a change in behavior. “If we’re unable to do this, the plague of parties we see around campus will not stop.”

The school already had suspended the relatively few in-person classes it was holding on campus after announcing 64 students had tested positive Wednesday.

Luke Wood, the university’s vice president of student affairs and chief diversity officer, said the school has hired the private security firm Elite to ensure students on or near the campus are practicing social distancing and wearing masks.

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“I want to be clear that there are consequences for violating our COVID-19 policies,” he said.

So far, the school has issued more than 457 citations in response to university COVID-19 policy violations, Wood said.

Although nobody has faced the stiffest penalties of being suspended or expelled, Wood said there are some serious cases being investigated.

He also said the university is investigating violations involving at least eight organizations, including fraternity and sorority houses. He did not name the organizations.

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“I don’t think we should be focused on specific communities but should focus on our community overall,” he said.

Wood also said students were warned through emails and text messages Thursday night that there would be increased security patrols over the next few days.

“We will be present this weekend,” he said. “We will be monitoring, and we will be identifying violations and following up.”

County Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten weighed in on the issue in a release Friday.

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“SDSU undergrads need to stay home within their living units this weekend,” she said. “We need your help to stop the spread within your campus community and our larger community. If you have been to parties and social events, you need to get tested, now. And isolate until you get results.”

About 8,000 of the approximately 35,500 students enrolled at SDSU returned to campus for the start of the fall semester on Aug. 24, with most on site to attend classes with hands-on labs.

Nine days later, the university announced it was pausing all in-person classes after public health officials said 64 coronavirus cases had been confirmed. Since then, there has been an 87.5% jump in cases.

Among the confirmed coronavirus cases at SDSU, 14 distinct groups have been identified around different locations, according to a release from the university.

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Some of the groups may be determined to be outbreaks, but none of the cases under investigation are related to on-campus educational activities, such as classes or labs.

No known cases have been reported among SDSU’s faculty, staff, visitors or vendors since the start of the fall semester.

Also on Friday, county health officials announced the number of new COVID-19 cases had jumped by more than 100 in one day and warned that numbers could go higher after the Labor Day weekend.

Facing a perfect storm of factors that could lead to a surge, the long weekend will be the first opportunity many people have to visit newly reopened businesses, which may be that much more alluring during a predicted record heat wave.

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County health officials warned local residents to take a lesson from surges in cases that followed both Memorial Day and the Fourth of July this year.

White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci issued a similar warning this week when he noted in a CNN interview that surges had happened across the country following other holiday weekends.

Cases in San Diego County also rose when restaurants, gyms and other businesses reopened in mid-June, which prompted the state to order businesses to close indoor activities.

Last Friday, the state eased restrictions on those and other businesses, allowing restaurants, gyms, salons, barbershops, malls and places of worship to again operate indoors, with various restrictions.

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Many movie theaters in the county also are reopening this weekend.

Adding to the threat of a new spike, record high temperatures are forecast in the county throughout the three-day weekend, likely tempting people to escape the heat in an air-conditioned theater, restaurant or shop.

“Most people won’t be working over the long holiday period, but COVID-19 will not be taking the day off,” Wooten said. “The more people go out and the more they interact with people outside their household, the more likely they are to contract the virus.”

She urged people to not host or attend private parties this weekend, avoid crowded places, maintain physical distances from other people and follow other safety precautions such as wearing facial coverings and washing hands frequently.

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The 453 cases the county reported Friday were the most since Aug. 7, when 551 were reported. The county also reported that a woman in her late 60s with underlying medical conditions had died, bringing the total number of local deaths related to COVID-19 to 701.

County officials also reported six new coronavirus outbreaks, including two in grocery stores, one in a restaurant, one in a business, one in a hotel/resort/spa and one in a hair salon/barbershop.

The new outbreaks are among 22 that have been confirmed over the last seven days, which is 15 more than the number that requires the county to take action.

Of the 7,554 tests reported to the county on Thursday, the latest number available, 6% were positive. The 14-day rolling average rate of positive cases is 4%, with the target being less than 8%.

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The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has gone up and down in the last few days but has decreased overall in the last month. The number of people reported in hospital beds on Thursday was 280, with 93 of those in intensive care. On Aug. 5, there were 381 people hospitalized, with 117 in intensive care.

More detailed data can be found on the county’s coronavirus website.

Warth writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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