The number of coronavirus cases in Lexington has nearly doubled in the last week as both Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University report dozens of infections.
“We were doing kind of well, and then had an uptick over the weekend of 13 or 14 cases,” VMI spokesman Col. Bill Wyatt said.
VMI has 21 active cases with 18 in cadets and three in staff members. Another 29 tests are pending, and 105 cadets who were in contact with the cases are in quarantine.
At its Lexington neighbor, W&L, 19 new cases were reported within the last week, bringing the total to 45 cases.
Both colleges required students to quarantine for 14 days before returning to campus. W&L tested students, faculty and staff as they arrived and found one case in a student and one in an employee, said spokeswoman Drewry Sackett.
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VMI did not test all cadets, but had a phased -in approach to bringing people back and is testing anyone with symptoms.
Wyatt said most of the cases are in freshmen.
“I talked to our post physician, and obviously some of the cases are related, but to pinpoint the origin of the infection, we just aren’t sure,” Wyatt said. “It could be asymptomatic people brought it back over the summer, and it’s been here all along. Now as we get through the semester and cadets are dealing with academic stress and physical exertion and things like that, it could just be showing symptoms.”
Sackett said most of W&L’s cases are related to a few clusters of students.
“While many of those can be connected to an off-campus event earlier in September, most resulted from close individual contacts,” she said.
While other college towns saw large surges in cases in August and early September as students returned, Lexington seemed spared. Its trend line of new COVID-19 cases, as reported by the Virginia Department of Health, continued on a steady pace, accumulating 59 cases by Sept. 23. On Wednesday, a week later, the case count had risen to 106.
Both VMI and W&L are taking steps to halt the spread.
“At VMI we have more control over our cadets than most colleges do their students. So each rat, which is a freshman cadet, gets a dyke, which is their senior mentor. We suspended that visitation for now because the spike over the weekend tended to be in the rat class instead of the rest of the class,” Wyatt said.
Cadets with positive tests are in isolation. Their close contacts are in quarantine. Each is tested at Day 5, but remain in quarantine for the full 14 days, even if the test is negative. He said VMI is following the health department’s guidance. If a quarantined cadet’s roommate tests positive, then the cadet’s 14-day clock starts anew, he said.
“We’ve had cadets in quarantine multiple times. I’m sure it can be frustrating for cadets, but we are aggressive about isolation and quarantine because really that’s the best resource we have in stopping this virus,” he said.
At W&L, 13 students were in on-campus isolation Tuesday, Sackett said. Another 119 were quarantining in their on- or off-campus residences or had returned home.
W&L has contracted with a lab and is doing robust testing, she said, with about 400 students and employees each week being tested. About half of the cases have been picked up through testing of people without symptoms.
The university has restricted the size of gatherings, has set community expectations and principles for students to abide by, and requires all students and employees to log on to a website daily to attest to their health and to log contacts.
“A small number of students have been required to move to all-virtual instruction for the remainder of the fall term as a result of COVID-19-related conduct violations,” Sackett said. “However, most of the COVID-19 violations we have had on campus to date have been related to distancing, face coverings and small gatherings, and have been handled through education and lesser sanctions.”