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As many as 25,000 students may return next week to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from areas with much higher infection rates of Covid-19 than Champaign County, according to a review of public health data by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

The campus has a total of about 51,000 students, of which 5,508 attended online in the last academic year. The university is located in Champaign County, which has a population of about 207,000, has an overall positivity rate of about 2%, although recently rates have been below 1%. 

The Midwest Center compared infection rates from public health data with student demographics and found: 

  • More than 20,000 students came from 357 Illinois ZIP codes that have positivity rates over 5%. About 33,000 students from 1,050 ZIP codes attended the university in the last academic year.
  • 10,769 of those students are from Illinois ZIP codes with positivity rates above 8%.
  • As many as 5,000 students may be arriving from 33 states that have positivity rates higher than 5%.

Governments are advised to have a Covid-19 positivity rate at 5% or lower for at least two weeks before reopening, according to the World Health Organization. Illinois has an 8% threshold.

The positivity rates are calculated by dividing the number of positive Covid-19 tests within a ZIP code by the total number of tests done. 

In Champaign-Urbana, students, staff and faculty returning to campus and the community will be required to be tested twice a week, said Robin Kaler in an email, associate chancellor for public affairs at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. 

Julie Pryde, administrator for the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, said in an earlier email that the university is “sending repeated messaging to all students encouraging them to test as soon as they arrive in the community.”

“CUPHD’s goal is to catch cases as soon as possible so we can isolate and prevent any spread,” Pryde said.

The decision to test all university students moving back to the county, comes during a week when two university researchers recommended in a letter to city officials in Champaign and Urbana that they go back from current Phase 4 of the Illinois reopening plan to Phase 3 to limit the spread of the virus during the surge of returning students.

Phase 3 prohibits bars and restaurants from opening except for curb-side pick-up and delivery.

Eric Jakobsson, professor emeritus at the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and Santiago Nunez-Corrales, a public health official from Costa Rica who is a PhD student in Informatics sent the letter after their research found that about 800 more people would be infected and four more would die  if Champaign-Urbana stayed in Phase 4.  

The recommendations were the result of a computer modeling of how the disease spread could be hindered through testing, social distancing, the closing of businesses and other factors.

The move back to Phase 3 is suggested to last from Aug. 15 to Sept. 8, once a full round of testing and isolation has been completed for students, staff and faculty at the University. 

"The results of this modeling lead us to suggest returning to Phase 3 constraints for bars and restaurants for about 3 weeks from August 15 to September 8 until the University testing and isolation has gone through its first cycle," Jakobsson said on Thursday.

Until this Tuesday, students returning to the community that had no plans to be on campus were not required to be tested. Kaler said testing was expanded to all students living in the community because those off campus are expected to interact with those on campus.

The positivity rates vary from day to day or week to week so the number of states over the 5% rate can easily change.

The city of Chicago, however, is requiring those who travel to the city from a state where Covid-19 cases are spiking to quarantine for 14 days. This also includes Chicago residents traveling to one of the 21 states that Chicago has deemed high risk.

There have not been any plans announced to have students from the U.S. high risk areas quarantined when they arrive in Champaign County. 

International students arriving in Champaign County, however, are required to quarantine for 14 days - although the university has no way to track compliance. But most of the international students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s 2019-2020 academic year are from countries with lower daily Covid-19 infection rates than the United States, the Midwest Center analysis found. 

Last spring, 9,824 international students attended the University from more than 100 countries, according to university data.