Alamance County has seen a bump in new coronavirus cases over the past few weeks due, in part, to the spread of COVID-19 at Elon University.
But the mass testing which Elon has launched to address these infections has also tamped down the county’s positive test rate – a metric that has become important to public health officials as they struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
Elon’s double-edged impact on the county’s numbers was brought to the fore earlier this week when Alex Rimmer, the county’s interim health director, delivered a semimonthly report on the pandemic to Alamance County’s board of commissioners.
During the board’s latest meeting on Monday, Rimmer told the commissioners that, as of Sunday, the county had 490 active coronavirus cases as well as a cumulative case count of 5,666. She added that the county’s case load was particularly high among 20- to 29-year-olds – a skew that she partly attributed to infections at Elon University.
Rimmer went on to inform the commissioners that, at last count, the university had 259 active cases and 641 students in isolation or quarantine because they had contacted COVID-19 or been in contact with someone who had. Rimmer acknowledged that these numbers only overlap with the county’s statistics when students reside in Alamance County at least 6 months of the year. She conceded, however, that the university has accounted for roughly three fifths of the county’s new cases.
Rimmer went on to discuss the effect of mass testing at Elon after Amy Scott Galey, the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, alluded to the university’s recent push to have every student on campus tested for COVID-19.
“They tested roughly 5,000 students last week,” she told the commissioners. “They brought in a private lab…and the cases have gone down in terms of the numbers that were positive.”
The county’s interim health director pointed out that, as Elon has tested more and more of its student body, the proportion of positive test results has steadily dropped. Rimmer added that the county’s own positive test rate has fallen in step with Elon’s decline – having dropped from a peak of 8 percent to its current level of 7.1 percent.
“We only do about 3,500 tests a week,” she said of the county’s health department. “With Elon testing so much, that actually drives our percent positivity down.”
Rimmer told the commissioners that Elon plans to conduct more tests later this week to identify any additional students who contracted the virus on Halloween. In order to reduce the prospect of Halloween-related infections, the university closed Haggard Avenue this weekend for an administration-approved movie night that Rimmer said had been billed as a “socially-distanced, mask-wearing event.” Even so, the university is bracing itself for a spike in new cases among students who didn’t take advantage of this supervised holiday bash.
Despite Rimmer’s acknowledgement of the infection control measures at Elon, some of the commissioners were quick to find fault with the university.
Commissioner Eddie Boswell suggested jokingly that the county should bill the tax-exempt institution for the extra workload it has generated for the contact tracing specialists at the local health department. Meanwhile, Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, observed the “irony” that Elon’s case count has skyrocketed after students protested an outbreak, which has since petered out, at Alamance County’s jail.
Commissioner Bill Lashley also seized the moment to take a swipe at the university for the alleged social activism of its faculty.
“I think it’s a disgrace,” the long-serving Republican said, “that the person in charge of Elon University hires and knows that seven members of Antifa are professors at Elon.”
Most of the commissioners had less to contribute when Rimmer addressed the 93 deaths that the county had seen at the time from COVID-19.
The interim health director said that the elderly and people with chronic health conditions have constituted the vast majority of these deaths. She also acknowledged that mortality from COVID-19 has been disproportionately high among black and Latino residents.
The only commissioner who had much to say about these statistics was Tim Sutton, who suggested that a comparison of the county’s current death rate with the pre-pandemic figures might help put things into perspective.