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MTU: COVID testing working to prevent wider spread

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Zachariah DeYoung, doctor at Upper Great Lakes Family Health Center, does a nasopharyngeal swab of a Michigan Technological University freshman to test for COVID-19.

HOUGHTON — Michigan Technological University continues to drive the increase in positive COVID-19 tests in Houghton County, though it has not translated to a wider spread in the broader community or on campus.

Houghton County has had 181 positive cases and 40 probable cases as of Tuesday, according to the WUPHD. Of the positive cases, 55 have recovered.

That’s up from 155 positives and 34 probable cases Sept. 10. However, the number of active positive and probable cases declined over the same span from 93 cases to 53. According to state data, there are five people currently being hospitalized for COVID across the Upper Peninsula.

WUPHD began separately reporting the number of active and probable cases this week.

“Really what we’re trying to capture there are the people within that quarantining period that we’re actively monitoring,” said Health Officer Kate Beer.

As of Tuesday, nearly half of the county’s total cases since March — 89 cases — had come from Michigan Tech over the previous 14 days. The county overall has had 115 new cases since Aug. 31. (Tech’s 14-day rate rose to 92 on Wednesday.)

The rise in Tech’s positives was front-loaded; of the 89 cases, only about a third came in the past week. The biggest spike in positive tests came over Labor Day weekend, part of Tech’s initial focus on testing at congregate living and other potential hot spots.

“That effort resulted in the identification of cases and – in collaboration with the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department – we isolated and quarantined community members as necessary,” Ian Repp, Tech’s assistant vice president for university marketing and communications, said in a statement. “Our Greek houses cooperated with the University in testing efforts and in efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Over the past week, we’ve seen a consistent decline in the number of surveillance tests in which COVID-19 is detected. At this time, our testing program is working as we had hoped, and we will continue to take the necessary steps to limit the spread of the virus in our community.”

On Monday, the state Department of Health and Human Services posted the first of what it said will be weekly updates on outbreaks at K-12 schools and higher educational institutions. The updates are available at michigan.gov/coronavirus.

The site listed four new outbreaks in Houghton County, all at Michigan Tech. Twenty-five of the 28 cases are at unspecified Greek houses.

Tech also has two ongoing outbreaks at Greek houses involving seven students.

Tech is one of 16 colleges or universities reporting new or ongoing outbreaks, according to MDHHS.

Beer said new outbreaks refers to ones with no known relation to prior cases, while ongoing outbreaks are extensions of earlier cases.

The rate of new positive tests was enough to put Houghton County into the highest risk ranking for COVID-19, according to the MI Start map. On Sunday, the most recent date available, Houghton County had a seven-day average of 102.2 positive or probable cases per million people, above the 70 per million needed for “very high.” (That was less than half the peak recorded on Sept. 4, when the seven-day average was 353.6.)

The seven-day average has been at “very high” since Aug. 28, after previously only reaching that level on July 14.

In part because of the targeted testing, Michigan Tech posted a 7.6% positive rate over the past 14 days in data released Monday, its highest rate yet. (That has declined to 6.6% as of Wednesday.)

The higher percentage of positive tests also comes as the 14-day window moves past the large set of baseline tests from August’s move-in weekend. After student baseline testing concluded Aug. 29, Tech’s two-week positive rate stood at 0.39%.

In addition to its overall numbers, last week Tech began separately reporting numbers from surveillance testing — designed to pick up any broader spread across the campus — and non-surveillance tests coming from symptomatic people and medical referrals.

Over the past seven days, Tech’s surveillance testing has yielded eight positive tests, for a positive rate of 1.5%. The other 28 positive tests in the past seven days have come from non-surveillance testing.

Tech’s testing results are available at mtu.edu/flex/testing/statistics.

Beer said for the most part, contact tracing has gone well. The state has provided assistance with tracing for the general community, while Tech is assisting with tracing for university cases.

“We really are depending on people to be open and honest with us and who their close contacts are,” she said. “We’ve had trouble with people not disclosing who their close contacts are, which has caused some trouble going forward.”

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