Recent COVID-19 case uptick was predictable, still concerning, health officials say

(Infographic by Kaylie McLaughlin | Collegian Media Group)

COVID-19 cases across the U.S. are rising, and the greater Manhattan area is not immune as the campus positivity rate inches toward five percent and the local new case count trends upwards.

On Wednesday, the county added 60 new positive cases, 10 of which are associated with an outbreak within the Kansas State track and field team.

The local escalation is by no means shocking, Dr. Kyle Goerl, Lafene Health Center’s medical director, said. After all, respiratory illnesses become more prevalent as the weather gets colder, and more time spent indoors increases the chance of viral spread.

This week, the U.S. surpassed new COVID-19 case records set over the summer months, adding more than 100,000 new cases in one day, according to Johns Hopkins University.

“We’re a small part of a much larger issue right now, and that’s the surge that’s being felt really across the country and, I mean, even worldwide,” Goerl said.

In weeks prior, as Goerl puts it, Manhattan was like a “beacon” of low viral prevalence as cases spread rapidly around the state. Mask mandates staved off widespread infection, but now, some of the high rates from surrounding communities have started to spill over into Manhattan.

“It’s really just a matter of time before that pressure from external counties started being put upon counties like Riley or Saline or Sedgwick,” Goerl said.

As cases increase this time around, more of the transmission is attributed to off-campus activities rather than on-campus spread. That’s why, Goerl said, the local positivity rate is nearly two times what it is on campus.

“We have seen an increase in our percent positive in the last two weeks,” local health officer Julie Gibbs said during her weekly COVID-19 update.

There are a multitude of variables contributing to the spread — complacency is one of them, Goerl said.

“I think there is some level of fatigue, there’s some level of people wanting to kind of go back to some normal life things and may not be adhering to the strict risk mitigation strategies, like masking and distancing, that have worked so far,” Goerl said. “Complacency is the enemy, and unfortunately I think we’re seeing that happen in a few situations.”

But “getting back to normal” is a far off ideal — Goerl isn’t expecting K-State to get out of Phase 3 COVID-19 restrictions anytime soon. Phasing out of the COVID-19 plan can’t begin until there’s widespread access to a therapeutic treatment and an effective vaccine.

“We really can’t pivot from … that place until we can protect people appropriately, and the only protections that we have right now are distancing, masking, those sorts of things,” Goerl said.

Realistically, Goerl said, he’s expecting the next academic year to look largely like this one has — marked by campus masking, social distancing and expanded testing availability.

In the meantime, as the in-person portion of the fall semester comes to a close, campus health officials are hoping students will get tested through the asymptomatic screening program before they head home.

“I think it’s important to kind of think beyond ourselves right now,” Goerl said. “Students are going to be going home to see their families, and there’s plenty of anecdotal cases of people giving this to their family members and [the] family members subsequently dying.”

Gibbs said she encourages people to think about alternative ways to celebrate the holidays, like having a virtual family gathering, limiting the size of a group to just household members and shopping online instead of hitting the mall for Black Friday deals.

“It’s been a difficult year for everyone,” Gibbs said. “We’re all trying to navigate through this year the best we can.”

My name is Kaylie McLaughlin and I'm the ex-managing editor and audience engagement manager of the Collegian. Previously, I've been the editor-in-chief and the news editor. In the past, I have also contributed to the Royal Purple Yearbook and KKSU-TV. Off-campus, you can find my bylines in the Wichita Eagle, the Shawnee Mission Post and KSNT News. I grew up just outside of Kansas City in Shawnee, Kansas. I’m a senior in digital journalism with a minor in French and a secondary focus in international and area studies. As a third-generation K-Stater, I bleed purple and my goal is to serve the Wildcat community with accurate coverage.