College students aren’t to blame for spike in New River Valley coronavirus cases, officials say

Leaders discussed successes, areas for improvement in fighting COVID-19

With the fall semester winding down and college students heading home for the holidays on Thursday night, Virginia Tech and New River Valley leaders and health officials held a virtual Town-Gown panel discussion about what’s gone well and what still needs some work.

“The pandemic won’t be gone when they come back,” said Blacksburg Police Chief Anthony Wilson.

College towns like Blacksburg and Radford saw spikes in COVID-19 cases when thousands of students came back to school. The cases have since leveled out for college-aged students, but the NRV is still seeing a spike, especially in working-aged adults.

Dr. Noelle Bissell, the director of the New River Health District said it’s not because of the college students anymore.

“Now we have much more community spread,” said Bissell.

Birthday parties, sleepovers, carpooling, church events, and break-room exposures are all to blame, especially gatherings among close friends or extended family.

“We are very social creatures and that’s a really hard habit to break,” said Bissell

Virginia Tech’s vice president for student affairs Dr. Frank Shushok said students are leading by example.

“I think our students have modeled for others how to take this seriously and how to model public health in the name of the greater good,” said Shushok.

Bissell said she’s encouraged by the social distancing and mask-wearing she sees in grocery stores, but it’s still a challenge bringing everyone to a middle ground.

“Yes, acknowledge that most people will do well with this,” said Bissell. “But some people will get really sick and die from this.”

Blacksburg Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith said businesses are hurting the most.

“We really are hurting. We hurt when our businesses do,” said Hager-Smith.

As restrictions change with the virus, Wilson said the rules are tough to enforce. So the task force will continue to educate the public why the guidelines change and why they’re important to follow.

“They come out with such a broad scope. They’re very difficult to pin down an enforcement strategy, but they are wrought with things that need to be explained,” said Wilson.

When the spring semester comes, so does hope for a vaccine. Until then, the leaders recommended that everyone take time over the holidays to recharge.

“When you come back be ready to work,” said Wilson.

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