The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has reported 3,421 cases since students began returning to campus on August 15 despite university researchers predicting only 700 Covid-19 cases on campus by Thanksgiving.
In addition, as of November 5, the university has reported a surge in cases with 242 last week – the most since the second week of September – and 279 in the first five days of this month.
When deciding to reopen the university relied on computer-modeling by a team of researchers led by Nigel Goldenfeld and Sergie Maslov. The model assumed that the university would do extensive testing that would lead to the rapid isolation and quarantining of infected people.
Although the model also assumed some partying by students, it did not foresee that infected students would avoid isolation and quarantines and also dodge calls from contact tracers.
“For non-compliance, we allowed a certain fraction of people… to simply not do that, against CUPHD requirements… no model can predict the sort of thing that happened last Thursday when there were a number of parties… in violation of the law,” Goldenfeld wrote in an email in September.
Partying and social gatherings without masks and social distancing has continued. The university has received nearly 400 complaints about public health violations. Recently over Halloween weekend, videos showing the flaunting of public health guidelines at parties and at bars surfaced on social media.
But prior to the noncompliance behavior shown on Halloween weekend, Goldenfeld said if daily cases for the university stayed low, then that would be a good outcome — but only if the community complied with public health guidelines.
“Probably the best one can say moving forward is that we may expect in the range 10-30 cases per day going forward, hopefully less if there is compliance and enforcement of public health ordinances,” he said in an email in September. “For a large university with twice/week testing of undergraduates, this is a very good outcome.”
University researchers Eric Jakobsson and Santiago Núñez-Corrales did independent modeling over the summer and predicted at least 2,000 cases in the fall if the community and university did not go back to restrictions that had prohibited indoor service at restaurants and bars. Champaign did impose some limits on bars in Campustown at the beginning of the semester, but by Sept. 2 the university had to issue further restrictions on students.
Jakobsson and Nunez-Corrales also based their model on data including the entire community, not just the university. Total cases in Champaign County increased from 1766 on August 15 to 7,114 cases on November 3. County public health officials attributed most of the county cases not to students who returned to campus, but to an increase in family and friends’ gatherings.
Yet even Jakobsson wrote in an email on September 4, “it never occurred to us that any significant number of people would try to sabotage the containment by not accepting confinement, not cooperating with contact tracing, and organizing what can only be called covid parties.”
He added, “if the positives won’t isolate, it all falls apart.”