‘Kind of inevitable’: Western University students react to coronavirus outbreaks

Click to play video: '28 students at Western University test positive for COVID-19'
28 students at Western University test positive for COVID-19
WATCH ABOVE: (Sept. 17) Dozens of students who attend Western University have tested positive for COVID-19 and it’s prompted University officials to move back to phase three plans, which include restrictions around sports and recreational activities. Erica Vella has more, including a message from the city’s mayor. – Sep 17, 2020

LONDON, Ont. — Western University campus was quiet and mostly deserted Saturday morning — typical at the London, Ont., school known for its weekend party culture — save for a few dozen students lining up for COVID-19 swabs at a mobile testing unit near the university’s community centre.

Roommates Elizabeth Lam and Tiffany Liu showed up at 8 a.m., expecting an earlier opening at the site hundreds have visited for tests over the last few days.

The graduate students had seen a few friends recently and wanted to reassure themselves as the school dealt with recent outbreaks. Lam said she wasn’t surprised to see cases among students climb to 39 on Friday after thousands returned to the city.

“It was kind of inevitable that this would happen,” she said. “It’s disappointing and scary, but at least we have testing on campus.”

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The university, renowned for its school spirit and rowdy homecoming weekends, has had to quickly adapt its pandemic plan in recent days.

Full details of the return to “modified Stage 3” of the Western campus reopening plan are still pending, but non-academic activities were shut down Thursday after 28 students tested positive.

Athletics, in-person club meetings and events have been suspended and access to libraries and other buildings is now restricted. In-person components of about 25 per cent of courses are continuing for now.

London Mayor Ed Holder had harsh words for student partiers this week. As daily case counts reached higher levels than the city had seen in months, Holder warned rule-breakers Thursday “you are going to kill someone” if the pattern continues.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Ontario’s top doctor says Western University cases being monitored, more restrictions possible'
Coronavirus: Ontario’s top doctor says Western University cases being monitored, more restrictions possible

Dr. Chris Mackie, medical officer of health for the Middlesex-London Health Unit, said Friday that the region was in its second wave of the pandemic, noting that “virtually all” of the spread among Western students was being driven by parties — either at bars or in private homes.

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Third-year student George Wang said he trusts most of his peers are responsible adults, but he also said it was predictable that a few wouldn’t follow the guidelines.

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“When you put a bunch of kids together, it’s kind of expected that they’re going to party,” said Wang, who was waiting for a swab on Saturday before a planned visit with family in Burlington.

He didn’t expect all his courses to be online when he decided to move back to London, and his school year so far has not included such typical perks as access to the gym and classes on campus.

“I kind of regret moving back now, but it is what it is,” Wang said, noting there were more cases at Western than in his hometown, which had just 15 active cases as of Friday.

“Is there really any point coming back when everything’s online and it’s more dangerous here than at home?”

Matt Reesor, Western’s student council president, said he’s been fielding questions from anxious students since the summer, with greater urgency in recent weeks as uncertainty has become “the theme of the entire year so far.”

“(They’re) looking for that clarity to understand what’s happening, and to make sure they’re safe and the community’s safe,” Reesor said.

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Cross-country team member Mark Royce was running near the campus’ outdoor track on Saturday, though the facility itself was closed and unoccupied.

The 18-year-old had been looking forward to training with his new team, but group practices were swiftly cancelled after the first session.

Instead, team members have broken into smaller groups for training while the university weathers the outbreaks. Royce is hopeful an indoor track season might shape up later on, but he supports the decision to shut things down.

“Some of us are pretty disappointed that we can’t have any races or anything, but (I’m) still happy to train,” Royce said.

Walking in a park near the university, London resident Alex Santi said it’s been unfortunate to see cases in the region go up, but he expected numbers to climb with thousands of students coming into to the city.

Santi said he’s comfortable with how the university, the city and the students seem to be handling the outbreaks — though he did decide against eating out after watching the contagion spread.

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“We had plans to go (for dinner) this weekend, but we changed the plans,” Santi said. “It’s unfortunate, but better safe than sorry.”

As one of more than 3,730 people living in residence — about 70 per cent of the school’s capacity — Mason Shearer said he’s still happy with his decision to experience his first year of university on campus.

He said he was comfortable with the measures in place for frosh week, which took place outside with mandatory masks and distancing rules.

But Shearer said he’s wary about hangouts in residence, where just one friend from another floor brings you into contact with another, much bigger social circle.

“You just don’t realize how many people you end up being in contact with,” he said.

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