Eduvation Blog

Anatomy of an Outbreak

Good morning, and TGIF!

Things continue to be tense out there. India is continuing to set COVID19 records, reporting close to 100,000 new cases each day. In early September, new cases in England surged 167%, despite testing shortages, leading to regional lockdowns. The WHO warns that Europe has a “very serious situation unfolding,” with weekly cases higher than in March. South of us, Donald Trump seems to want to be president of the disunited states, suggesting that we ignore COVID19 deaths in Democrat states, so the country’s mortalities look better.

Here in Ontario, Doug Ford has reduced the limit on indoor private gatherings back to 10 people, effective today, in Toronto, Peel Region and Ottawa. Quebec’s health minister is considering moving some regions to orange alert, and planning to announce stricter fines today. And Canada’s Chief PHO is worrying out loudthat “the situation could change quickly and we could lose the ability to keep COVID19 cases at manageable levels.”

Sorry, but I feel obliged to keep on top of all that for you, even though neither of us enjoys it. Moreover, this week’s issues have all been pretty dense and (I admit) a little depressing, deep dives into plague politics, global warming, and (not incidentally) fiscal pressures and budget strategies.

(If you’re desperately in need of a laugh, or at least a smirk, stay with me to the end and I’ll share a few light-hearted videos, #ICYMI.)

Today I’m going to focus on telling a single story, about the past week or so here in my hometown. After a quiet summer and very few cases of COVID19, at least 13,000 students have come to town to attend Western and Fanshawe. And as you might expect from what we’ve seen south of the border, things are starting to happen.  With 29 students now testing positive, I think this is the largest outbreak so far in CdnPSE, and it is likely to get even bigger this weekend. It’s also likely that we’ll see similar scenarios play out at other institutions across the country.

But first, a few updates…

CdnPSE Cases

uOttawa reports that an employee who worked at Tabaret Hall (the central administration building) over the past week has tested positive for COVID19.  CTV

Western now reports that 28 students have tested positive for COVID19, including 1 student on campus. (See the detailed coverage below).

CdnPSE Winter 2021

McMaster U announced Monday that it will extend this fall’s online delivery through the Winter 2021 term, with a few exceptions. Residences will remain closed, other than for “exceptional circumstances” or to quarantine international students.  McMaster

uWindsor announced last night that it will continue to offer most courses online through the Winter 2021 semester, “with face-to-face offerings being provided where in-person interaction is integral to meeting program learning outcomes.” UW has <15 classrooms that can accommodate >30 people under current physical distancing rules.   uWindsor

CdnPSE Updates

Memorial U reports that student enrolment has reached an all-time high, 19,429, a 4% increase from last year. Grenfell campus enrolment is up almost 5%, and the Marine Institute is up 3.8%. Graduate enrolments remained “relatively stable,” thanks to a 14% increase in domestic enrolment. Recruiters have been reaching out to former students who have not been enrolled for 5 years but are more than halfway through a degree. The online delivery mode was particularly convenient for them.  MUN

Saskatchewan Polytechnic has launched a new School of Continuing Education, to provide corporate training and microcredentials, and “retraining and upskilling for those whose jobs have been affected by the COVID19 pandemic.” (Workforce training and microcredentials for reskilling or employed adults are trends we can expect to see accelerate significantly this year.)  SaskPolytech

Anatomy of an Outbreak

Is the US, “major outbreaks” are those with 1,000 or more active COVID19 cases at a single campus – and sadly, there have been dozens of examples. But in Canada, most announcements so far have been of a single case, usually for an off-campus student. With low rates of community infection in many parts of the country, program delivery largely online, and a robust public healthcare system, obviously the Canadian context is quite different. But what we’re seeing unfolding right now in London Ontario may be poised to become something much bigger…

Campus of Extroverts

Western U has long been known as home to an outstanding student experience, which faculty like to think means “engaging professors,” but incoming freshmen often equate with “party.” The beautiful neogothic campus, built on a former country club, is augmented by champion football Mustangs and cheerleaders, hundreds of student clubs, thousands of new residence rooms, and a flourishing pub scene just outside the campus gates on “Richmond Row.” (Remember, I say this with love as a proud alum.) It should be pointed out that Western has also achieved one of the highest entrance averages in the province, so the students are no slouches – but many have a “work hard, play hard” ethic, which I suspect gains momentum from the students in Business and Engineering. (Not to single them out, but hey, in my day they picked on us ArtSci’s plenty, so I’m sure they can take it.) At a minimum, let’s say, Western attracts more than its share of extroverted undergraduates.

Committed to Residences

In the past few decades, Western has constructed at least half a dozen large new residence complexes at the east and west gates, not to mention the substantial number of private townhouse developments that line Sarnia and Western Roads. The new residences have thousands of modern, suite-style units, and as their website points out, “residence at Western has been rated #1 for student living for 5 years in a row by Macleans.” (It’s not just the buildings, of course; Western has nurtured some excellent residence life staff, and the student council sustains a strong climate of school spirit.)

In mid-May, Western announced a “mixed model” of course delivery for the fall term, observing that “physical distancing will significantly reduce the capacity of the campus.” The hope at the time was that 25-30% of courses would have some unspecified kind of on-campus experience. But because “residence is an integral part of the in-person educational experience,” Western would honour its guarantee of residence for 100% of incoming undergrads. The oldest traditional-style dorms were de-densified (converting doubles to singles, and putting roommates in adjacent rooms), while suite-style buildings remained at full capacity. The last I heard, Western planned to fill its residences to about 80% overall capacity – about 4,100 students, and much more ambitious than other universities across the country, who were planning on 25%, 30%, or 45%, or in some cases were keeping their residences completely closed. (Obviously, institutions with dorm-style housing would necessarily have to de-densify more.)

Calm Before the Storm

Londoners have never been big on public transit, the roads are usually clogged with private vehicles, they’re terrible at shopping downtown, there’s plenty of parkland and suburban sprawl, and many people here have white-collar jobs that allowed them to work from home all summer. So no wonder the city was “bucking the provincial trend” on Sept 9: when the rest of Ontario was growing alarmed about rising case counts, London still had just 10 active cases.  But as the London Free Press asked ominously, “can that last?”

The answer was, “yes, for about 4 days”…

Richmond Row

Downtown businesses were delighted to have thousands of students back in town this fall, just as they have been at college towns across North America. After 6 months of socially distanced or even empty dining rooms and bars, suddenly outdoor patios were packed and sidewalks were awash with crowds. Many students erroneously felt masks were not required outdoors, and certainly masks were removed while eating, drinking, smoking or laughing.

Street Parties

Despite repeated pleas by the university administration, police and bylaw officers responded to dozens of callsnear campus and elsewhere in the city, issuing 30 noise bylaw warnings and 4 alcohol warnings over the weekend. “People are reporting large house parties and seeing nobody wearing masks.”

The party would be short-lived, for students and pub-owners alike…

The First 5 Cases

On Sunday Sept 13, the regional health unit announced 3 Western students had tested positive the previous day, and declared a community outbreak. (The PHO also indicated that 2 more Western students were “additional, associated cases,” and would be officially counted on Monday.) The PHO took care to point out that this was not a campus outbreak, but a downtown one: “While the students who have tested positive all live in the community and have not attended classes or activities on campus, they have had a number of interactions at downtown bars and restaurants, and with students in neighbouring housing units.” The PHO indicated they were tracing about a dozen close contacts of the students, and urged any Londoners who had also frequented downtown clubs, bars or restaurants to get tested for COVID19 if they noticed symptoms.


Testing Capacity

London, a growing city of almost 400,000, has had 2 COVID19 assessment centres running since mid-March, and tested 51,536 people by late August. (Assuming about 23 weeks, that works out to about 320 tests a day.) London’s hospital and PHO labs have the capacity to process 4,850 tests per day, so there was ample room to handle a surge of demand. Planning ahead, in late August Western announced that they would bring a mobile COVID19 testing unit to campus for the fall as well. But that underestimated the panic that the PHO announcement would cause.

On Monday Sept 14, the day after the first 5 cases were announced, mile-long lines of vehicles waited for hours at both London assessment centres, which ultimately tested 770 people. Western’s campus testing trailer was overwhelmed too, reaching capacity by noon and sending the students waiting in line home, to return Tuesday. On Tuesday Sept 15, Western doubled its testing capacity to 500, but the university and the PHO pleaded with the public and students to seeking testing only if they were experiencing symptoms, or had close contact with a confirmed case. Out of all the testing, as of Tuesday there were still just 25 active cases in the county.

4 More Cases

By Tuesday Sept 15, at least 9 Western students had tested positive. 7 were related to downtown bars and nightclubs, 1 to travel, and 1 to close contact. As a local columnist put it, London’s optimism was “bruised” and “it feels like the tsunami is about to hit the shore with the PSE students back in town.” Western publicly statedthat it might have to use its enhanced code of conduct to discipline misbehaving students, up to potentially expulsion. The PHO declared, “We do anticipate we will see more of this behaviour and I’d be surprised if it didn’t generate more cases in the community.” He also indicated that these students didn’t arrive in London from COVID19 hotspots like Toronto or Ottawa, but “more likely” contracted the virus through social interactions in London.

Most K-12 students had also returned to classes on the Monday, but London’s other PSE campus, Fanshawe College, was still gearing up for the return of 8,500 students to campus in hybrid classes on Sept 21.

11 More Cases

On Thursday, the PHO announced 11 more cases, bringing the total to 29 students. (10 of the new cases were Western students, and 1 a Fanshawe student.) For the first time, one of the students was living in a campus residence hall. The PHO released an “Alpha visualization” of the outbreak, showing student exposures sitting in the same section at a nightclub, sharing a drink, sharing an e-cigarette, sharing car rides without masks, and socializing with their housemates without masks. And ominously, he said, “Having seen significant, high-risk activity this past weekend, we know there will be more cases.”

Faculty Concerns

The head of Western’s faculty association told the media that 60% of faculty had been worried about returning to campus all along. One prof asked the reporter, “why spend $12,000 to $15,000 a year to come to London for online courses? …For some, it’s to party and see friends.”

Backpedalling on Reopening

By noon Thursday, Western announced it was rolling back to Phase 3 of its reopening plan. It suspended on-campus activities, including athletics and recreation, cancelled all in-person club meetings and events, and began restricting access to libraries and other facilities. Residences will remain open, and in-person components of classes will continue. The announcement warns that “the university is also planning to use the full force of the code of student conduct should students risk the health and safety of the community through their actions.”

Last night, president Alan Shepard wrote, “I’ve heard from many of you that you appreciate the hybrid model Western planned for this unprecedented year – but that model is in jeopardy if cases continue to rise.” He reiterated the potential for serious health consequences, even for young people: “Permanent lung injury, neurological damage such as long-term cognitive impairment or stroke, and cardiac disease such as heart failure.”

What’s Next?

It’s obviously hard to be sure whether this outbreak will continue to grow exponentially, or if contact tracing will miraculously contain it. Maybe all the students will suddenly avoid the bars and clubs downtown. Perhaps Western won’t have to shut down any further, and perhaps this outbreak won’t be repeated anywhere else in Canada.

But I’ll say it again: so far, being a pessimist has me batting 1,000 in projecting the course of this pandemic…


I’ve watched hundreds of PSE face mask PSAs now, and most have become incredibly predictable. This new one, “Face Mask Do’s and Don’ts” from U Central Florida, though, is worth 60 seconds of your Friday.  YouTube


Likewise Vancouver Island U has a 3.5-min health and safety vid that’s a bit more subtle, but has its amusing moments. (We should all carry kayak paddles on campus, I think!)  YouTube


Maybe it’s the Star Trek and Matrix references that get me, but this 2-min spot for Grand Canyon U reallystands out for its production values, acting, and even special effects. It’s definitely funny, although I don’t know if there’s a core message for prospective students buried in there…  If you only watch one PSE commercial this week, though, watch this one!  YouTube


You’ve almost made it to the weekend!  Avoid all the parties (and perhaps the grocery stores), stay safe and be well!

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