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'A Monumental Task' — UT Austin Struggles To Follow Through On COVID-19 Prevention Plan

A Taos co-op resident wraps up a nightly deep clean in the kitchen in September 2020.
Dominic Anthony Walsh
Texas Public Radio
A Taos co-op resident wraps up a nightly deep clean in the kitchen.

By: Dominic Anthony Walsh

The University of Texas at Austin made headlines early in the pandemic when more than 60 students contracted COVID-19 after a spring break trip to Cabo San Lucas. That group was among the first of more than 1,250 UT students, staff and faculty to test positive. One staff member died in July.

UT’s roadmap for the fall semester was unveiled over the summer under the slogan “Protect Texas Together.” The online guidance states, “By committing to protect your fellow Longhorns and yourself, you are helping maintain a healthy, safe environment and showing all members of the UT community compassion, care and respect.”

Many students and faculty have said they are thrilled to be back, and local public health officials have expressed appreciation for a number of the university’s preventative measures. However, the administration has failed to follow through on several key strategies and has allowed massive gatherings to proceed over the objections of medical experts. Responsible student behavior is crucial to the success of UT’s reopening plan, but young people’s intense psychological need to socialize makes risky activity more likely.

Asking Students To Behave Responsibly: ‘Against Their Nature’

Community spread is active in Austin’s West Campus neighborhood, where most students live. A Texas Tribune analysis found a more rapid spread of COVID-19 in the West Campus ZIP code than anywhere else in Travis County. The trend continued a week after the analysis was published. On Sept. 29, the area had more new cases than any other ZIP code over the previous 28 days, the previous 14 days and the previous seven days.

Guadalupe Street divides the UT campus from the mostly residential area of West Campus. At the corner of 27th, a nondescript, five-story building rises above a shuttered bar on one side and a busy In-N-Out restaurant on the other. A weathered, red banner reading “Taos Cooperative” stretches around the exterior. Cooperatives — or co-ops — are student-run residential buildings. The 40 residents at Taos decide rent, expenses and, now, how to respond to COVID-19.

The Taos Co-op has a rough contact tracing and isolation plan in place for any potential cases. And any resident who puts the community at a reckless level of danger can be held accountable under the ableism provision of the community’s harassment policy, as the virus is more likely to cause severe complications for people with diabetes, asthma and other medical conditions.

Late at night, the sound of indie music and clanging pots and pans echoed from the industrial-style kitchen as a masked resident finished a late-night clean.

Taos co-op director and UT senior Cerena Ermitanio, right, chats with a resident in the kitchen in September 2020.
Dominic Anthony Walsh
Texas Public Radio
Taos co-op director and UT senior Cerena Ermitanio, right, chats with a resident in the kitchen of the co-op.

As the resident disinfected surfaces and stowed away dishes, co-op director Cerena Ermitanio pointed out the various common spaces that are now closed. Many of them feature quirky design choices one might expect in a building run by college students. The door to the gym is a sheet of plexiglass with a blanket thrown over it. An ominous painting of a strange creature greets visitors to the sub-basement, which usually hosts open mics. And hidden behind a curtain in the “TV Temple,” a giant television screen faces a handmade, three-tiered seating contraption.

Ermitanio said the Taos Co-op is taking COVID-19 more seriously than the UT administration.

“I don't believe that UT's overall response is really enough to stop the spread,” she said.

She described the decision to continue football games as “BS.”

“I think the reality is UT should be all totally closed. All of our classes should be online,” she said. “Because all of these things where we’re open at this weird number of capacity and still hosting football games is really, to me, an incentive for people to move back and have these gatherings.”

UT’s decision to host football games over the objections of local health officials certainly clashes with its own messaging to students. But even in the absence of mixed messaging, many college-age people have a psychological incentive to gather. An intense desire for social gratification is etched into the very wiring of their still-developing brains.

“It's a monumental task to ask young adults to basically act against their nature,” said Anna Song, an associate professor of health psychology and the director of the Nicotine and Cannabis Policy Center at UC Merced.

“And so what we're asking people in this age group — young adults — to do is to control impulses, to delay gratification — and delay gratification that comes from social interaction,” she said. “All of those things are very counter to the way the brain is wired for young adults.”

Young adults achieve that gratification in different ways. The Taos Co-op is relatively calm and quiet. In the rolodex of Austin co-ops, residents here tend to err on the side of studies rather than parties. But other co-ops have hosted gatherings. And multiple Greek life houses continued their rush events as if there wasn’t a pandemic, hosting huge parties and drawing the ire of fellow students and Austin residents.

Austin Public Health Records Reveal 1% Mask Use At Football Game In Some Sections

Gov. Greg Abbott has overruled local officials on a number of issues, including sporting events. Stadiums can now open with 25% capacity. For UT, that’s 25,000 people.

“Packing 25,000 people even into a 100,000-seat stadium introduces a lot of risk, not only to the people who are there, but to the community as well,” said Mark Escott — the Austin Public Health interim medical director and health authority — about a month before the first game.

There were more than 15,000 people in attendance at UT's first game of the football season. According to state law, the stadium can be filled to 25% capacity, which is 25,000 people.
Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
There were roughly 15,000 people in attendance at UT's first game of the football season. According to state law, the stadium can be filled to 25% capacity, which is 25,000 people.

During multiple press briefings in the lead up to the game, Escott publicly pushed back against UT’s decision to resume the football season with an in-person audience. The maximum recommended gathering in Austin has been 10 people for several months.

Just before the first UT football game, more than 15,000 fans flowed into the huge stadium. Multiple gameday traditions were cancelled, like tailgates and the Bevo Boulevard street party.

UT had said masks would be required, and a deep, booming voice intermittently encouraged fans to mask up over the loudspeakers before and during the game.

Standing in front of the stadium, longtime Austin resident Ed Malcik waved his hands across the scene.

“Look around you. There's three people there without masks,” he said, pointing at various groups. “There's another over there. There's one person behind me. You know, there's a lot of people coming in without masks.”

Media access to the game was restricted, but portions of the approximately 15,000-person crowd were visible from the roof of a nearby parking garage. Of about 600 people within sight, more than 300 didn’t wear a face covering.

Many students felt the decision to host the game was hypocritical, as UT blatantly disregarded guidance from local health officials while encouraging students to follow public health recommendations.

“You know, I think that students are constantly trying to read the tea leaves to understand how serious any organization or any authority figure is in what they've said,” said Art Markman, a UT professor of psychology and marketing.

He headed up an academics planning group for the fall semester, so he’s privy to many of the university’s COVID discussions.

Students attend UT's first game of the 2020 season. The stadium’s capacity is limited to 25% in accordance with state law, but only UT students had to test negative ahead of the game in order to attend.
Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
UT students attend the first football game of the 2020-2021 season.

“The Austin Public Health authorities actually toured the facility during the game, and came back with a very positive report about all of the precautions that were taken, the way that the stadium was organized — the social distancing that was going on,” he said.

When TPR asked Austin Public Health about the “very positive report,” a spokesperson replied, “Teams from Austin Public Health Environmental Health Services toured the facility on Saturday and expressed concerns over the lack of enforcement of masking and distancing as the game progressed.”

TPR sent an open records request to Austin Public Health to see the report. It did outline eight “positive observations,” like hand sanitizer stations and good use of directional flow in hallways and entrances. But it also pointed out multiple lapses.

“The high touch surfaces such as handrails and tables were not being regularly cleaned throughout the game. This was also confirmed by discussing it with an on-site UT custodian staff member,” the report read.

The report also noted issues at concession stands, where employees didn’t have time to change gloves in between customers despite touching student payment cards. The screens of the contactless payment system for non-students weren't regularly cleaned.

According to the report, estimated mask use in some sections of the stadium dropped from 88% at 6:06 p.m. to 1% by 8:30 p.m.

In a follow up email, Art Markman — the UT professor who initially described the report as “very positive” — wrote, “I was passing along what I had heard, but clearly that was inaccurate given what you heard from Austin Public Health.” He encouraged TPR to reach out to the athletics department. UT Athletics declined an interview. A UT spokesperson said gameday protocols are under review and will be improved in the future.

Without properly enforced safety measures, football games are potential petri dishes for airborne pathogens. Any infected fans will release bursts of aerosolized, virus-laden spittle when cheering or talking loudly. Without widespread mask compliance and social distancing, the chance of that spittle infecting other fans increases. And many fans stayed the night in area hotels, stopped by restaurants and mingled with family and friends before and after the game.

Testing And Transparency

More than 700 members of the UT community have tested positive for COVID-19 since late August, according to the university's COVID-19 dashboard. This figure is almost certainly an undercount of the current caseload.

The university has struggled to reach a goal of 5,000 proactive tests per week. For most weeks, the university hasn’t even completed 2,000 tests. A UT spokesperson said the university is capable of completing 5,000 tests each week, but not enough students are signing up for testing.

Student ticket holders were required to test negative in order to attend the first football game of the season. Of 1,198 students, 95 tested positive. The 8% positivity rate in that batch is significantly higher than the positivity rate found in the university’s proactive testing so far this semester.

And these two groups represent different outlooks on the virus. Students who sign up for proactive testing are more likely to take COVID-19 seriously, whereas students who were required to take a test in order to attend a football game actively wished to join a 15,000-person gathering, indicating a more casual attitude towards the pandemic.

When a student tests positive for COVID, a team of UT contact tracers springs into action. They track down and notify secondary contacts so they can isolate.

So far, according to Art Markman, the testing and tracing program is staying ahead of the spread. There is no specific metric that could lead to a temporary shutdown like the ones seen at Notre Dame, CU Boulder and some other schools. Rather, the testing and tracing program falling behind the spread would lead to a closure.

One key element of contact tracing is student compliance, which requires students to feel comfortable disclosing where and who they’ve been around.

“We've really tried to minimize the degree to which punishment is the main thing that we're doing in favor of education, in favor of working with students,” Markman said. “Because it's just not going to be an effective long-term strategy to be punishing people.”

The University of Texas required face masks to be worn at its first football game of the season, but many in the crowd did not keep their masks on throughout the game.
Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
The University of Texas required face masks to be worn inside the stadium at its first football game of the season. Outside, about half the crowd wore masks.

While UT hopes to keep students truthful, some students have expressed concerns about a perceived lack of transparency from the university.

If a student tests positive, for example, on the second floor of the massive Jester West Residence Hall, only confirmed secondary contacts and residents on the second floor will receive a notice that they’ve been in contact with a COVID-postive person. Residents on other floors will not receive notices, and UT does not publicly disclose which residence halls have positive cases.

“Information in the absence of the ability to act on that information creates more anxiety than it does positive behavior, and anxiety tends not to lead to good behavior,” Markman said. “A small amount of anxiety isn't so bad if it gets you to think twice about doing something that maybe you shouldn't do, but chronic anxiety can ultimately lead to feelings of helplessness, like ‘What does it matter what I do?’ at which point you start seeing a lot of bad behavior.”

Anna Song — the UC Merced health psychology professor — said alarm fatigue is a real concern, and notifications ideally should contain some actionable information, like instructions to self isolate or get tested. Song said the issue of transparency can be overcome by maintaining a central database of information that people might want to know.

But UT has expressed concerns about violating federal laws around privacy, even though those laws only prohibit the disclosure of personally identifiable information — a prohibition that does not preclude the public disclosure of COVID-19 cases in huge residential halls.

There is a place where UT students can find out more about COVID in residence halls. After obtaining a handful of secondary contact notifications, The Daily Texan reported on 11 cases this semester as of Sept. 3, but the total number remains unknown.

Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this article, the date on which the West Campus ZIP code had the highest percentage of COVID-19 cases was not clarified.

Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @DominicAnthony. He is a corps member of Report For America.

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