COVID-19 outbreak infects students at Northern State University in Aberdeen


SUBMITTED, South Dakota News Watch

Bart Pfankuch, Submitted, South Dakota News Watch

Eight students of Northern State University in Aberdeen and a youth who attended a recent athletic camp on the NSU campus have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a university spokesperson.

The university is working closely with the state Department of Health to undergo contact tracing of those with confirmed cases and to monitor the campus and students for the potential that more cases could arise, said Justin Fraase, vice president of enrollment, communications and marketing at Northern State.

”That [number] may blossom or expand, and that’s where Department of Health contact tracing comes into play and why we continue to work with the department,” Fraase said.

So far, all of those with confirmed cases of COVID-19 have had no symptoms or only mild symptoms of the potentially deadly disease, Fraase said. The university was formally made aware of the positive tests by the state on Tuesday, July 28.

People who tested positive were present at three recent youth athletic camps for girls: a volleyball camp on July 20-12, a basketball camp on July 23-24, and a soccer camp on July 24-26, Fraase said.

The NSU students who became infected do not live on campus but likely live in the larger Aberdeen community, Fraase said.

NSU is hosting youth basketball and football camps on campus this week, and those events are continuing as scheduled, with masks being worn by attendees. The infected students are isolating off campus and are not attending those ongoing camps, Fraase said.

“To say this is exclusively tied to athletics, I can’t say that right now,” Fraase said.

Fraase said he did not have details as to how the outbreak was initially discovered and referred questions on the origin to the state health  department. Phone calls and emails sent to the state by News Watch were not returned on Wednesday.

At this point, it isn’t clear if the virus was spread on campus or off campus among the students, Fraase said.

“They may be living here because of their affiliation to Northern, and we can’t say definitively, but right now we’re not able to correlate these back to on-campus activities,” he said. “It’s possible the spread took place outside the boundaries of campus.”

Fraase said it was important for Northern State to let the public know about the outbreak.

“We want to just let people know there’s been a few cases here and this should be a reminder to us all that this is out there and we all need to take the necessary precautions at this time,” Fraase said.

Campus activities will continue as planned, including visits by prospective students and summer learning, research and athletic activities, Fraase said.

The outbreak also is not anticipated to affect the university’s plans to welcome about 3,600 students back on Aug. 17 for the fall semester and the start of classes on Aug. 19.

“Today’s news does not impact plans for the return to campus or athletic plans that are ongoing,” he said. “We feel very strongly we have taken the necessary steps to ensure we are slowing the spread of covid on campus and in our community.”

The South Dakota Board of Regents, which governs the university system, announced on May 1 that all six universities and two special schools in the system would return to in-person teaching for the fall semester. The six universities, including Northern State, will begin classes on Aug. 19 and end in-person teaching on Nov. 24, with all finals exams to be administered remotely.

The Regents voted unanimously on Wednesday, July 22, to begin the academic year with a requirement that masks be worn inside all public buildings on campus. The Level 3 designation, the third-most stringent on a scale of 1-4, will be reviewed and could be changed after 30 days. Individual universities can also request a change in level at any time if conditions change on their campus.

Universities are undergoing significant planning and preparation for the return to classes, including extensive cleaning, installation of protective barriers, providing of sanitizer and protective equipment, and re-configuring of classrooms to ensure social distancing.

Northern State President Timothy Downs posted a message to faculty, staff and students on July 24 with an update on preparations for a return to inperson classes.

Downs noted that hand sanitizer would be available at every building entrance, sanitizing wipes will be in every classroom and masks will be provided to people who need them. He also noted that the state health department is making Abbott ID-Now testing machines available for use by students at no cost.

“I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made in preparing for a return to campus this fall, and I’m confident that we can work together to keep our entire campus community safe and healthy,” Downs wrote. “I ask again that everyone be vigilant in  continuing to follow CDC guidelines when it comes to preventative measures, and remain alert to campus messaging regarding
policies and procedures as we get closer to fall.”

The NSU outbreak comes as colleges and high schools across South Dakota and the country are planning for a return to in-person teaching and learning and making preparations to keep students, teachers and staff as safe as possible.