Student Health braces for uptick in coronavirus cases from Halloween

Photo of a Norman Topping bust. A white ‘SC’ mask is fitted over the statue’s mouth.
As Halloween weekend and the Nov. 7 USC football season opener approaches, USC Student Health urges students to adhere to coronavirus-related guidelines and take the pandemic seriously to prevent potential outbreaks. (Charles McCollum | Daily Trojan)

Despite the significant decline in positive coronavirus cases among students, USC Student Health expects an increase in cases following Halloween. In anticipation of the upcoming week, which includes Halloween, the election and the Nov. 7 USC home football game, Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman urged in student media briefings and in her community health update email Oct. 26 that students remain vigilant when adhering to coronavirus-related guidelines.

Van Orman confirmed in a student media briefing Thursday that during the week of Oct. 18-24, five students tested positive through exposed and symptomatic testing administered by Student Health. This marks a slight increase in cases from the previous week, which saw only one positive case in students, according to Student Health testing data. 

“We don’t know if this is a trend yet, but … as you start to see numbers in L.A. start to creep up, it’s only going to take a slight bit of mixing in our student population [to cause] a slight uptick of cases,” Van Orman said. “We could very easily be in an outbreak situation in another two to three weeks right before finals and the holidays.”

Both weeks saw no new cases for asymptomatic student surveillance testing administered by external testing distributor Color, according to testing data. Van Orman said that Student Health has seen fewer positive cases but more students getting tested, which they want to continue through the end of the fall semester. 

According to Student Health’s COVID-19 dashboard that featured tier assessment data from Oct. 26, there are approximately eight new cases per 100,000 people in Los Angeles County, amassing a 3.7% positivity rate. Thus, the county still remains within the most restrictive tier for the state. As for potential reopening plans for the spring semester, Van Orman confirmed that Student Health will reach a final decision based on local public health conditions with the L.A. Department of Public Health in late November.  

In her Oct. 26 email, Van Orman cautioned against any parties or large gatherings especially during Halloween and the Nov. 7 game, as they are prohibited by both public health order and University policy. Tailgating and other kinds of gatherings are prohibited on campus properties, including USC Village, with Van Orman encouraging virtual watch parties instead.

According to the email, the L.A. County Department of Public Health now allows limited private gatherings with three or fewer households — with the exception of dormitories, residence halls, boarding houses, group living situations, fraternities and sororities.

“There’s going to be a normal want to … get together socially, so we’re really continuing asking students to be vigilant on that and to remember that those things are still not safe and not permitted,” Van Orman said in a student media briefing Oct. 22. “And it would be very easy for us to have a very significant uptick again. We want to keep those numbers low.”

Since symptoms can appear as late as two to three weeks after a coronavirus infection, Van Orman said Student Health could see a surge of cases in late November if students continue to attend gatherings. This could impact students preparing for finals, as well as pose risks when they go home for the holiday break. 

“Many of you may have heard Dr. [Anthony] Fauci speaking, but he’s been speaking about Thanksgiving and universities actually being superspreader events,” Van Orman said. “So if we imagine thousands of students, even at USC, traveling home over the holidays, if the rate of infection and the cases are high when people travel home, it’s really potentially very deadly to their families, to the communities they’re traveling.”

For Halloween, Department of Public Safety Assistant Chief David Carlisle said in an interview with the Daily Trojan that DPS plans to continue cooperating with students and housing management companies in limiting the spread of the coronavirus. According to Carlisle, Halloween normally sees a large number of parties, and especially because it falls on a Saturday this year, he stressed that students must remember that large parties are prohibited and that they must keep each other safe.

During the fall semester, Carlisle said that DPS has responded to well over 200 party-related calls — a number that is not atypical of a fall semester. Most of these party calls involved smaller social gatherings that did not necessarily involve coronavirus-related violations, Carlisle said.

“It’s not 200-plus complaints of COVID violations,” Carlisle said. “There’s many houses in the University Park neighborhood where you have multiple students living together, and so they can’t help but come in contact with each other at least to some degree. But if their music is playing, and it sounds like a party, then it’s in our system as a party call, and we would go and respond and ask for their cooperation.”

According to Carlisle, when DPS responds to a party call, they will try to identify the person hosting the gathering and record their information, as well as document who is attending if possible. If gatherings at a particular location, such as an apartment complex off-campus, become an ongoing problem, DPS contacts the corresponding management company for additional cooperation. 

At this point in the semester, Carlisle said DPS has been “fairly successful” in responding to gatherings and limiting the spread of coronavirus infection.

“[The number of party calls] is slowing due to people understanding that there are risks involved, and so working together with Student Affairs and other University departments and DPS to convey the message that it’s all about staying safe and healthy, we see the number of party calls slowing,” Carlisle said. “I hope that continues on Halloween.”

According to Van Orman, when cases increase in young adults, hospitalization and death rates begin to follow over the next several weeks, which is what L.A. County has recorded. Therefore, looking ahead to the upcoming week, Van Orman stressed that students continue to take coronavirus precautions seriously to prevent any potential outbreaks.

“We are in a way asking students to think of others, to think that you actually are a part of a public health solution, that your actions … directly will affect the number of people who might end up hospitalized or passing away from this virus in our county, and that feels very distant,” Van Orman said. “But it actually matters … I just can’t stress that enough.”