A record rise in COVID-19 positive tests and quarantine numbers on Wheaton’s campus two weeks ago resulted in some students having to move into isolation at East Campus for the first time since the pandemic began. The spike in cases was concentrated among members of the swim team, the women’s basketball team and the football team.
On March 31, Wheaton’s online COVID-19 dashboard counted a total of 32 on- and off-campus students in isolation as a result of positive tests, along with 45 students in quarantine as their close contacts. The numbers have since declined, with a total of eight positive cases listed on the dashboard as of April 17. COVID-19 cases are currently declined within DuPage County as a whole, with the seven-day rolling down from an average of 278 to 212 new cases this week.
Students who test positive for the virus are housed in four campus apartments at Michigan-Crescent or in two campus houses, one for men and one for women. Once the 26-student capacity limit of these options has been reached, students with positive COVID-19 tests are moved to housing at East Campus.
Before the start of the fall semester, campus facilities renovated East Campus into a student quarantine location. The building had not been used until April 1, when the number of students in isolation and quarantine exceeded the main campus capacity to house them for the first time. Thirteen male students were moved to East Campus last week, though several have since left isolation after recovering from the virus.
An anonymous swim team member confirmed that there were two swim team parties on Friday and Saturday, March 19 and 20, and afterward around 10 members of the team tested positive The entire team was quarantined as a result of close contact.
The current spike follows a previous incident with the football team that resulted in 24 students testing positive on March 1. According to an anonymous football player and women’s basketball captain Hannah Williams, the outbreak stemmed from a football player who hosted his unknowingly COVID-positive brother for a visit. Hosting non-members of the Wheaton community is against the college’s COVID regulations.
“His brother was looking to come to Wheaton to play football and wanted to visit campus. I don’t know if that’s allowed or not, but it feels like it should be,” said Williams, a senior business economics major. “I also know that this football player has gotten a lot of heat from housing [after the COVID spike] that I think was very inappropriate. I know there was a lot of drama there. Even coaches got involved and were talking to Housing [Services] about how they handled it.”
The player’s brother infected other football players, who in turn exposed members of the women’s basketball team to the virus as a result of romantic relationships between members of the two teams. This spike meant Williams’ team went into quarantine and was not able to compete in the season-ending CCIW championship conference on March 4, 6 and 9.
“Coming from a senior woman basketball player whose season was affected by this positive case, I have no resentment — no blaming,” said Williams. “This is a part of life. There is a sense that life just still has to go on.”
Athletics staff highlighted the fact that the majority of the teams affected by the second spike in COVID cases — including the basketball, swim and football teams — are all in their off-season at the moment.
“I’m proud of how well the fall semester went and the low number of COVID positives we’ve seen in athletics in competing teams this spring,” said Head Athletic Trainer Tricia Deter. “All winter teams made it through their seasons without an outbreak, and that is a testament to how seriously coaches and student-athletes took protocols and regulations in their seasons.”
Despite the spike in cases among teammates in early March, Williams also confirmed that the majority of the women’s basketball season was COVID-free.
“We were the only women’s basketball team in the CCIW that did not take off a single practice or a single game in regular season due to COVID,” Williams said. “We never had a single player have COVID until the last week and a half of our season, so we felt very protected [from COVID-19].”
The COVID-19 Leadership Team, made up of administration and faculty members, attributes the recent rise in cases to the introduction of campus-wide weekly testing this semester. Last semester, weekly COVID tests were only required for students who had off-campus internships, jobs or residences, or who participated in athletics, ROTC, music groups or the Conservatory.
“We recognized that we probably were going to detect more this semester than we did last semester because we were really only targeting a smaller group of students for surveillance, and now we’re literally doing the entire student body,” said Director of Student Health Services Beth Walsh, who is also a member of the COVID-19 Leadership Team.
Paul Chelsen, Vice President of Student Development and member of the leadership team, cited widespread student fatigue with COVID-19 protocols as another possible cause for the current spike in cases.
“Students are tired. They’re frustrated. The COVID boundaries are not attractive for anybody at this point after a year into [the pandemic],” said Chelsen.
Walsh noted that more close contacts of infected students are testing positive for the virus this semester than during the fall. She attributed the change to a rise in more contagious COVID-19 variants present throughout the US. Since August 1, there have been 142 positive cases documented on campus.
“In the fall, maybe one of somebody’s six close contacts would become positive. Now about 50 percent of the close contacts they’ve listed are becoming positive,” Walsh said. “I do think we could be dealing with a different COVID strain that’s potentially a little more infectious.”
The cases this semester also tend to be more symptomatic than during the fall semester, with many students experiencing colds and fevers.
“I would say the majority [of students] just feel very fatigued, with a low grade fever or congestion like a cold,” Walsh said. “But it’s kind of like a cold that wipes you out. There’s been a couple people that we’ve just needed to give a complete day off of school because they just needed to sleep.”
Even if the number of positive cases rises, Walsh said the COVID-19 Leadership Team does not foresee requiring students to return home again.
“We decided if East Campus became 75 percent full, we might pivot to going fully remote for a week,” she said. “We would never want to get to the point where we would send students home again. If we got a really large outbreak, I think we would make it work.”
Wheaton College, IL