As University of Texas opens campus, local officials implore students to be cautious of COVID-19

A photo of the UT tower
The University of Texas at Austin begins its fall semseter Aug. 26. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)

The University of Texas at Austin begins its fall semseter Aug. 26. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)

Ahead of The University of Texas-Austin’s campus opening Aug. 26, Austin’s top public health expert asked students to be an example of healthy and cautious behavior regarding COVID-19. While decreased local case counts have nudged Travis County from Stage 4 coronavirus risk to Stage 3, Austin-Travis County Health Authority Mark Escott warned college students’ return to campus could put the larger community at risk.

“I am concerned that we’ve seen outbreaks happen in other college towns,” Escott said. “We’re pleading with [UT students] to make Austin different. Let Austin be the example of college students who can be responsible in the midst of a pandemic,” Escott said at an Aug. 25 meeting of the Travis County Commissioners Court.

Escott’s direction supports guidance from a report published by UT’s Lauren Ancel Meyers Lab on Aug. 20 outlining the various risks students’ return to campus will pose for coronavirus transmission at UT and in the larger Austin community. According to the report, an estimated 0.5% of UT’s 22,000 returning students will be infected with COVID-19, or between 82-183 students. Some 0.83% of students who remained in Austin over the summer are estimated to have the virus.

“Students returning from other cities in Texas pose a particular risk, given the summer surges in cases that have occurred across the state. To mitigate these risks, UT is asking students to quarantine prior to engaging in campus activities, [and is] ramping up capacity for testing, contact tracing and isolation/quarantine of infected and potentially exposed students,” the report reads.

In a letter to students, interim UT President Jay Hartzell asked students to do their part by wearing masks, social distancing and participating in proactive community testing by the university to gauge baseline infection rates of asymptomatic individuals at UT—5,000 tests per week, according to Escott. Hartzell said the university’s goal was to keep infection rates at or below the initial rate of infection presented upon students’ return.

“Our success in the days ahead will be determined by our behavior; our commitment to wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing; our compassion for our fellow Longhorns; and our sense of shared responsibility,” Hartzell wrote.

The “fellow Longhorns” most at risk, Escott said, are UT faculty and staff, not students in their late teens and early 20s—and spread to vulnerable community members outside UT is also a danger.

“We’re asking our UT students and other students to be good members of the community,” Escott said.
By Olivia Aldridge

Reporter, Central Austin

Olivia joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in March 2019. She covers public health, business, development and Travis County government. A graduate of Presbyterian College in South Carolina, Olivia worked as a reporter and producer for South Carolina Public Radio before moving to Texas. Her work has appeared on NPR and in the New York Times.