One Alabama university stayed safe during the coronavirus outbreak. Another, 60 miles away, struggled.
Every student had to test negative before setting foot on campus. Everyone had to use a smartphone application to check for symptoms daily. And everyone heard the same pleas from university leaders: Keep the campuses safe.
More than a month later, 2,375 Tuscaloosa students had tested positive for the virus, 6.2 percent of the student body, according to data through Oct. 1. Birmingham had 109 cases, a tiny 0.48 percent of the students.
Michael Saag, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Medicine and a leader of the state’s testing effort, said he expected some coronavirus cases to surface, but not at the ferocious rate they did.
“I was surprised that it happened so fast,” Saag said.
The staggering disparity at two of Alabama’s large universities illustrates how the coronavirus can barrel through some schools while barely affecting others, even in a state that is considered a hot spot. Experts say it is difficult to pinpoint why Tuscaloosa and other universities faced outbreaks and others did not, but they suspect that enrollment size, the campus culture and students’ ages probably played roles. The result is that students at one school managed to enjoy a semblance of typical college life, while the other campus’s culture was upended.
Saag said he empathized with students because college is about more than going to class; it’s about socializing, networking and exploring life on their own.
“It’s about meeting people and developing really what turn out to be lifelong friends,” he said, calling those impulses “the fabric of what makes the college experience so special.”
“What’s happening is that the virus has invaded that fabric, and to the point where it’s threatening the very essence of what being in college is about,” Saag said.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey