USC community cases increase as students return from traveling

In front of one of the entrances to the campus, a COVID-19 check-in awaits visitors. There is also a white sign urging people to social distance, wear a mask and sanitize regularly.

In front of one of the entrances to the campus, a COVID-19 check-in awaits visitors. There is also a white sign urging people to social distance, wear a mask and sanitize regularly.
The increase in positive cases among students has been connected to increased travel to popular vacation destinations such as Mexico and Florida, Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman said. (Julia Lin | Daily Trojan)

Thirty-nine students tested positive for the coronavirus between March 14 and March 20, breaking a two-month trend of decline, according to the USC COVID-19 Dashboard. The majority of cases are associated with students travelling by air internationally to Mexico or across state lines to Florida to popular vacation destinations, which have a substantial chance of infection, Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman said in a student media briefing Thursday. 

“You’re not just traveling somewhere and staying there; you’re traveling somewhere for a few days and then traveling back,” Van Orman said. “Don’t get in a plane and fly to Mexico, take a car trip with three or four people you live with and stay physically distanced.”

USC’s ability to discipline students violating public health guidelines is limited because they’re in contact with multiple people and rarely disclose their activities, Van Orman said. 

“We are not able to enforce quarantine because, unfortunately, these are people that are living off campus, in private apartments,” Van Orman said. “We really have to rely on people to understand the rules and understand why they’re there.”

Van Orman said that Student Health is currently monitoring the situation, due to the presence of more contagious strains, such as the U.K. and New York variants. 

“[The variant] had been in a group of students who hadn’t been infected before, so they’re vulnerable,” Van Orman said “I think we’re going to continue to see outbreaks with people violating the rules.”

Regardless, Van Orman said students are welcome to come back to campus if they comply with the Trojan Check and follow county public health guidelines of quarantining ten days after travel, social distancing, wearing a mask and hand sanitizing. 

“We really want people on campus and that’s part of why we really want to advise people about the issues around travel,” Van Orman said. “We want things to get back to normal.”

In a Universitywide email Tuesday, Provost Charles Zukoski detailed plans to further open campus access, such as opening on-campus museums, increasing library access and offering outdoor intramural and club sports. Van Orman said individual schools are also planning to host on-campus activities such as wellness events, open office hours, Makerspaces where School of Architecture students can utilize 3D printers and practice rooms for Thornton School of Music students.

“A lot of it is focused on academic opportunities for students to come in,” Van Orman said. “It really depends on the school but there’s a whole range of things that are really focused right now on letting students get two things: one, to get back to facilities that they haven’t had access to, and then, two, to allow people to gather in small groups to have discussions and study periods.” 

USC will hold an in-person commencement ceremony for the classes of both 2020 and 2021 from May 14 to May 25 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, but Van Orman said plans could change as late as May 13— USC activities are dependent on county guidelines. LA County entered the red tier March 15, allowing certain indoor venues like gyms, libraries and stadiums to reopen under reduced capacity. 

The commencement will be held over the course of two weeks to avoid over population capacity limits recommended by the county, Van Orman said. Physical contact will be limited and seating will be assigned and separated by household to avoid transmission.

“Chances are, there’s going to be someone with [coronavirus] there,” Van Orman said. “We want to create a situation where you can go and attend and sit six feet away from someone with [coronavirus] and not get it … It’s a little sad, but we want to avoid things that cause people to come into close contact.”

To those who plan to attend graduation, Van Orman recommends remaining in isolation before and after the event. 

“If people are choosing to come for graduation, be really cautious,” Van Orman said. “Don’t mingle, don’t go out. Stay within your household units when you’re in your commencement location, and then, when you go back, quarantine for 10 days.”