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'A Potential Tipping Point' 

HSU returns students to campus despite health officer's warnings

As the Journal went to press Aug. 18, Humboldt State University was in the process of welcoming nearly 800 students back to on-campus housing in preparation for the Aug. 24 start of online instruction and the Sept. 8 partial re-opening of in-person classes.

But on the eve of the first wave of students arriving at campus residence halls Aug. 17, Humboldt County Public Health responded to a California Public Records Act request from the Journal and other media, disclosing an email exchange between Health Officer Teresa Frankovich hand HSU President Tom Jackson Jr. In the exchange, Frankovich raised a host of concerns with HSU's plans for a limited reopening of campus given a recent surge in local cases and limited testing capacity, urging the university to postpone its plans to October. In response, Jackson questioned Frankovich's motives, said her "perspective is noted" and indicated HSU would be proceeding as planned unless Frankovich stepped and used her authority to "obstruct" the university.

During a media availability the afternoon of Aug. 15, shortly before the emails were released, Frankovich struck a diplomatic tone answering questions about HSU's plans.

"Obviously, HSU is a really integral part of our community and we really benefit from having the university here and its student population," she said. "That being said, of course, we have been concerned locally about our epidemiology in terms of our increasing case rates and some of the clusters of cases we have seen. We also have concerns about our testing capacity ... We do have concerns. I've discussed those concerns with Humboldt State University. They are planning to move forward and so we plan to basically support them in whatever way we can ... We'll be partners through this COVID season as we are with many entities in our community."

And move forward HSU did, with approximately 225 students arriving on campus Aug. 16, with 170 more expected Aug. 18 and an additional 387 expected to arrive between then and Aug. 23, adding up to about a third of the number of students the university usually houses on campus. By the time the Journal went to press Aug. 18, at least one of the students had tested positive for COVID-19 and moved into isolation.

Per HSU's plan, the students will be housed in single-occupancy rooms and asked to quarantine for 14 days, with the university arranging to provide them with a variety of services, from meal deliveries to "virtual programs to interact socially," HSU Emergency Management Coordinator Cris Koczera told the Journal.

The students — coming to campus from communities throughout the state — will not be closely monitored while in quarantine with "someone watching their doors," Koczera said, but will have all pledged to adhere to a "social responsibility commitment" they agreed to when deciding to come to campus for the semester. Closer enforcement of the quarantine plan, she said, falls into a "really gray area of what you can and can't do." Outside guests — including parents and friends — will be strictly prohibited, she said.

But the students will all be housed individually, Koczera said, though some will be in residence halls with shared bathrooms. She said the campus has set aside 162 rooms to isolate students who test positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed.

The university did, however, modify its plans on the fly to include mandatory testing of all incoming students. Under the plan, student health center staff were to take nasal swabs of students as they moved into on-campus housing, with the samples then sent to the Humboldt County Public Health Laboratory for testing. Frankovich told the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on Aug. 18 she hopes to be able to test each of the nearly 800 students living on campus three separate times during their 14-day quarantine, though it may only be possible to do so twice due to Public Health's limited testing capacity. (A state laboratory in the Bay Area has also offered assistance processing samples, Frankovich said, though that would require local Public Health staff to package, ship and handle all data entry for the tests, which she said isn't feasible.)

But the added load of processing even two tests each from nearly 800 students over the course of two weeks is already daunting for the local lab, which can currently only process about 120 tests a day. Corporate laboratories — like the ones the OptumServe testing facility at Redwood Acres sends samples to — meanwhile, have large backlogs that translate to delays of a week or more in returning results compared to the 24 to 72 hours at the Public Health Laboratory, making them somewhat useless for this type of surveillance testing.

The push to get students back on campus for the fall semester comes as HSU continues to wrestle with a large projected budget deficit. Already facing a shortfall of more than $5 million due to a years-long trend of declining enrollment, HSU announced in April that number was projected to balloon to $20 million over the next two years due to further enrollment declines expected because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While it's unclear exactly why, it appears there was a sizeable communication gap between the university and Public Health in the days leading up to students arriving on campus. Back in early July, HSU publicly announced it was planning to bring up to 1,000 students back to on-campus housing this fall with plans to resume a limited number of in-person classes. Since then, COVID-19 has surged throughout California, which now has 42 counties on the state's watch list, prohibiting them from holding in-person classes. Many universities have revised plans to only house students at risk of homelessness on campus.

But the governor's office didn't release its guidelines for institutes of higher education until Aug. 7. Four days later, Frankovich emailed Jackson asking to speak to him that day, Aug. 11, saying she thought it made more sense than her speaking to other HSU staff. About six hours later, she emailed again, noting she had not heard back.

The email exchange came at a time when HSU was clearly gearing up to resume on-campus operations but also as Humboldt County was in the midst of its largest case surge to date, having confirmed 60 new COVID-19 cases and three new hospitalizations in just nine days.

In the email, Frankovich made plain that local COVID-19 conditions were deteriorating to a point where she felt it unsafe for the university to begin on-campus instruction or bring students into campus housing. She pointed to California Department of Public Health guidelines for institutes of higher learning, stating that in-person instruction should be contingent on local epidemiological trends — namely that caseloads and hospitalizations have been decreasing over the past 14 days, quoting directly from the section. "At this time," she wrote, "we are not able to meet these pre-conditions."

"We have now had 72 cases in the past two weeks, 48 in the past week," she wrote. "Our 14-day case rate per 100,000 went from about 28 one month ago to 50 as of (Aug. 10). We are detecting more community transmission cases and 42 percent of our cases are [in people] under 30 years [old]."

She went on to note frustrations about current testing capacity but wrote that she hoped the situation would improve in October, when a collaborative effort is slated to increase local testing capacity sevenfold. But until Public Health can test more samples locally, she wrote, capacity "would clearly fall short in meeting demand for a large surge occurring in context of a return of students to dorms and on-site learning at HSU."

"Robust testing with fast turnaround is essential to manage cases on campus that will inevitably occur and are very likely to occur quickly as we bring students from across the state to the area, many of whom are coming from places where disease circulation is vastly higher than ours," Frankovich said of HSU. "There will be positive students walking onto campus without question and congregate housing will increase transmission risk enormously."

The last factor Frankovich notes as cause for concern is Public Health's capacity to conduct the contact tracing investigations that health officials believe are essential to limiting the spread of the virus by quickly identifying and isolating those who have been exposed. The recent surge in cases locally has stretched capacity, she wrote, adding that the department is "positioned such that a large number of cases occurring in a short time frame, such as a return to campus, would be a potential tipping point for overwhelming the system, risking wider spread of the virus."

Frankovich closed the email by saying she is "sorry that local conditions make moving forward as planned this impractical at present" and noting that she understands the "enormous impact" pushing students' return to campus housing and in-person instruction into October would have.

Jackson responded the following day, saying he found it "unfortunate" Frankovich's "perspective has shifted," and that he regretted her putting her concerns in writing.

"Your perspective is noted," he wrote. "I am also providing a link to the governor's guidelines in case you are not familiar with them. As we proceed as we have consistently and carefully planned, we will continue to update you on additional measures we will be taking given Public Health's limitations."

Frankovich replied the following morning, thanking Jackson for his response and noting that she'd tried to arrange a phone conversation prior to sending her email before getting to the substance of the issue.

"The governor's guidance was actually quoted in my email, so yes, am definitely aware," she wrote. "The issues are not Public Health's issues, they are our community's issues and being faced by communities across the state. That is why we have been transparent in discussions all along that the COVID landscape could change and necessitate a shift to virtual learning only. It is the same discussion we have had with K-12 schools for months as well. I would be happy to talk about options and sincerely feel that a delayed start date could serve everyone well. I look forward to speaking with you."

Jackson responded the following day, expressing shock. His response seems to ignore Frankovich's explanation that her urging HSU to postpone bringing students back to campus was in direct response to changing conditions in Humboldt County, characterizing it as a "sudden shift in position despite the fact that your team has been working with HSU on our plans for fall semester since June."

"I am disappointed and our confidence has been shaken in your department's ability to meet this challenge as our partner," he wrote. "We are moving forward with our plan to welcome a very limited number of students into our residence halls according to the governor's and CSU guidelines and current public health protocols. If you have any further plans to use your authority to obstruct this plan (in spite of supporting it earlier), we must be informed immediately."

Jackson went on to explain that pushing back HSU's plans would create hardships for students, before expressing dismay at Frankovich's take that there was added risk for the community in HSU's plans.

"It also seems perplexing that you are suggesting we should deny housing to students, who are also county residents, who will reside in Humboldt permanently when 150 hotels, 87 groceries, 34 gyms and studios, 145 barbers and hair salons, and 125 restaurants in the county are currently open and accepting guests from all over the country," he wrote. (For the record, restaurants are still prohibited from providing indoor dine-in service.) "Thousands of tourists have been welcomed into our county given that travel restriction has remained lifted all summer."

He went on to call Frankovich's statements about added risk brought by students from out of the area "prejudicial," saying it is "irresponsible to assume" they are a "threat." Frankovich's focus on HSU students "is inequitable and perplexing," he wrote. Jackson stated that HSU has "one of the best operational plans" in the state, warning that if he had to close housing based on Frankovich's assumptions he would need to "consider the impact of triple digit layoffs, hundreds of students possibly stopping their education ... and potentially millions of dollars lost to the region."

"HSU also houses some people that may have housing insecurities, low income or are coming from abusive environments," he wrote. "I doubt you are suggesting we put these people on the street."

While Jackson repeatedly asserts HSU's plans conform with the California Department of Public Health's guidelines, whether that's the case seems in dispute, as they clearly state: "All decisions about following this guidance should be made in collaboration with local public health officials and other authorities" and that their implementation "will depend on local conditions."

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About The Author

Thadeus Greenson

Bio:
Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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