Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – Following a high profile disagreement between the president of Humboldt State University (HSU) and the county’s health officer, COVID-19 has not shown any signs of significant on-campus transmission.
That news comes as the university has controversially agreed to host a football team from San Jose State University for practice sessions – a move that the county’s acting health officer says was done without consulting the county.
The favorable status of HSU’s coronavirus suppression efforts was discussed during an update from Acting Health Officer Dr. Teresa Frankovich at the September 29 Board of Supervisors meeting.
In a series of emails last August, Frankovich had warned HSU President Tom Jackson Jr. against starting onsite instruction and on-campus housing
Frankovich had advised that because of the county’s rising COVID-19 case rate at the time, the start of the fall semester couldn’t be “accomplished safely” – an assertion that Jackson sharply challenged.
The emails were publically released following media public records act requests, bringing the debate to a public stage.
Out of hundreds of incoming students, several tested positive for COVID-19 and were put in self-isolation. The university reports that there are no active cases now.
Supervisor Rex Bohn noted that “there seemed to be a lot of drama a while ago” but “it seems like they’re doing a pretty good job of working with you guys.”
“Yeah, we’ve been doing really well,” Frankovich said, adding that opening university activities has been “a huge issue” elsewhere and “we’ve been doing really well here, comparatively.”
She said she credits HSU with doing “a lot of planning on that” and effectively implementing safety measures and working with the county on testing.
Carrying out “ongoing surveillance testing” is being discussed with HSU’s medical staff, Frankovich continued, in order to “keep an eye on what might be circulating because we do know it’s a high risk setting.”
Frankovich had lobbied Jackson to delay the fall semester until this month, when expanded testing capacity will be in place.
The county is in the process of setting up new lab infrastructure that Frankovich said will expand testing by 400 to 500 specimens per day.
Testing has been an important part of the effort to control disease on campus but Supervisor Mike Wilson said that the actions of HSU’s administration and the students themselves can also be credited.
“So far, we have one of those institutions that has been responding in a good manner and has been successful so far,” he said.
Wilson and Board Chair Estelle Fennell noted that some universities have struggled to control the spread of COVID-19. When Fennell asked for specifics on why HSU has fared better, Frankovich said that “testing right out of the gate was important” and the university “did a lot of messaging about expectations on behavior.”
But she added, “I’ll be surprised if we don’t see case clusters on campus just like we see clusters of cases elsewhere.”
She said disease control in a campus setting is “challenging” because many young people who have COVID-19 show minimal or no symptoms of it.
The county’s case rate over the last two weeks is down from summertime peaks. On the day of the meeting, a total of 509 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed, with a total of 31 hospitalizations.
By the end of the week, nine more cases had been confirmed and there was an additional hospitalization.
University ‘Clout’: Frankovich fielded media questions on HSU’s hosting of the San Jose University football team’s 135 staff members and players during an October 1 video.
She said the Public Health Branch was “not a part of the decision-making process” on it but is reviewing a plan created by San Jose State.
The team is coming to HSU because Santa Clara County’s COVID-19 risk ranking is higher than Humboldt’s and team sports activities aren’t allowed there.
Responding to a question about that from the North Coast Journal, Frankovich said that “at this point, I think we need to focus on essentially making sure that this move is one that is seamless in Humboldt County, that it has minimal impact on our county and by supporting the effort to build good safety plans around this.”
She added that “the team and/or the university” will be responsible for testing and the county will be responsible for contact tracing if there are positive test results.
In a follow-up question, the Journal asked if there are “equity issues at play” when “extraordinary efforts” are made to allow university-level sports while local schools and youth leagues are mostly sidelined.
“The short answer to that is yes,” Frankovich responded, adding that “professional sports teams and colleges and universities probably have a little bit more clout in some of these arenas than do local sports in K-12 schools, for example.”