Emory University recorded a near-record 50 positive student COVID-19 cases on Sept. 2, a 455% increase from the previous Thursday. The spike in cases has overwhelmed the Emory Conference Center Hotel, which had to open up additional rooms for isolating students and is now having students reside in isolation with a roommate.

Over the past 10 days, 209 students and 20 faculty and staff members received positive test results, according to the Emory COVID-19 Dashboard. This constituted a 4.58% positivity rate among the student body and a 0.82% positive rate among faculty and staff as of Sept. 7. 

The recent campus spike nearly matched the surge in positive cases in mid-February, when a record 51 students tested positive on Feb. 17, according to the COVID-19 dashboard, prompting the University to institute testing two times a week for on-campus students.

While cases on campus have risen dramatically, COVID-19 cases have decreased in Georgia and DeKalb County. Cases have dropped by 27% in Georgia and 28% in DeKalb County over the past 14 days, as of Sept. 7. Nationwide, cases decreased by 12% over the same period. 

Conference Center makes additional rooms available, experiences delays 

This surge contributed to a nearly 500% increase in hotel accommodations in a single week, Executive Director for COVID-19 Response and Recovery Amir St. Clair said. As of Sept. 7, 141 students are in isolation and eight students are in quarantine in on-campus accommodations. 

While the Conference Center has not reached its maximum capacity, Emory had to utilize more rooms than previously assigned to accommodate students.

“Over this past week, as numbers quickly surged, the space required escalation quickly,” St. Clair said. “We worked to procure additional rooms, leverage the space that we had not previously designated for such use and turnaround services as quickly as possible.”  

St. Clair noted that the process of getting students to the hotel was partly delayed, not because the hotel was at capacity, but due to the scaling up the hotel’s quarantine and isolation processes in a short period of time to meet the demand of positive cases. 

The University’s delay in accommodating positive students in the hotel resulted in some positive students isolating within their dorm. Sophomore Advisor Adeola Adelekan (24C) said a resident in her building tested positive for COVID-19, but the hotel did not have the space yet to house that student. Consequently, the COVID-19 student was isolated in their dorm room while his roommate was moved to a different room in the hall.

This was not an isolated incident, Adelekan explained. One of Adelekan’s residents approached her and called housing, indicating she didn’t feel comfortable staying in her dorm room after her roommate was a close contact with someone positive. 

“Housing said that there was no … other rooms in the form or in the conference center for her to go to,” Adelekan said. “They said she should just stay in her room, so she ended up having to sleep in the same dorm room with someone who was a close contact.”

St. Clair said this policy follows CDC quarantine guidelines, which the University aims to adhere to. If a close contact is fully vaccinated and remains asymptomatic, they do not need to quarantine but must get tested within three to five days of exposure.

Students placed with roommates in Conference Center 

The University has begun doubling up students in isolation and quarantine “to support an optimal approach to the academic, the emotion and the overall health” of students, St. Clair said. 

Photo courtesy of the Emory Conference Center Hotel

After Emily Silver’s (24C) roommates tested positive for COVID-19 and experienced mild symptoms, Silver also tested positive for the virus, despite being fully vaccinated. When she arrived at the Conference Center on Sept. 3, Silver was assigned to a room with another student who she did not know. 

Although she could see how having a roommate could be “rough” for some students, Silver said that she “got really lucky” and has had a decent hotel stay because she has enjoyed living with her roommate thus far. 

Unlike her quarantine in the Conference Center last year, Silver said that having a roommate made her feel less isolated. 

The University’s student health and public health teams are evaluating whether students will continue living with roommates in the hotel, even when the hotel has the capacity to accommodate students in individual rooms, St. Clair said. This decision entails reviewing feedback and data to better understand how to balance students’ medical needs with their mental health. 

Sharing a room has come with some logistical issues, however, as some rooms were not built to accommodate two people and only contain one bed and desk. 

Silver and her roommate constructed a makeshift desk so that they could both work at the same time. While Emory did provide a cot to accommodate the additional person, the cot is “smaller than a dorm bed and just looks so sad,” Silver said. 

“We’re just going to share the king bed now because it’s ridiculous,” Silver said. “The cot is like a tiny little bed they set up on the floor next to the king bed.”

To mitigate these additional burdens, St. Clair emphasized the importance of respecting COVID-19 guidelines. 

“We’ve got to be vigilant as a community together because our systems are stressed, our personnel are stressed and our teams are stressed trying to maintain a very large increase,” St. Clair said. “We’ve got to have good partners to make sure that we minimize this and lower transmission.”

On-campus COVID-19 guidelines remain in flux

As of Sept. 7, 95.4% of students and 91.6% of faculty and staff are fully vaccinated. However, of the positive screening tests since Aug. 23, 70% have been vaccinated, St. Clair said in a Sept. 2 email. 

The rising cases prompted Emory to reevaluate its operating conditions, with the University sliding back into a “modified” yellow region on the University’s operating status meter

Under the new operating status, access to Dobbs Common Table and the Oxford Dining Hall are restricted to students with meal plans, with carry-out options available. Outdoor masking is now “encouraged” for vaccinated individuals and it is recommended that non-academic indoor gatherings of more than 250 individuals be moved outdoors. 

However, the University has not instituted any additional COVID-19 regulations as most positive cases originate from off-campus according to St. Clair. 

“The evidence from our contact tracing or cluster investigations … continues to point that off-campus transmission is largely responsible for what we see as high levels of transmission,” St. Clair said. “We’re really good at following protocol on campus … but we’re just not seeing the same level of diligence and adherence when off campus.”