Minnesota colleges are reporting fewer COVID-19 cases on their campuses this semester than they did last fall, suggesting high vaccination rates in their communities are helping stave off outbreaks many worried would happen with the more contagious delta variant circulating.
The Minnesota State system's 30 community colleges and seven universities collectively tallied 866 total positive student cases between Sept. 1 and Oct. 6, down significantly from the more than 1,200 cases reported in the same span last year. The University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus reported 111 total cases among its students and employees in September, about 10% lower than last fall, when even fewer students were on campus.
"Our cases are extremely low. We have no clusters or surges in a classroom … after already being at work for many weeks," U President Joan Gabel told the Board of Regents this month.
Colleges across the state had hoped COVID-19 safety measures such as indoor mask mandates and vaccination requirements would help minimize educational disruptions this fall. Many colleges have largely returned to pre-pandemic operations, holding most classes and campus events in person.
So far, it appears such measures are helping shield their campuses from becoming virus hot spots, even as much of the state continues to be battered by a delta variant-fueled wave of new cases.
Minnesota's largest private college, the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, has a confirmed campus vaccination rate of about 89%. St. Thomas reported 59 cases of COVID-19 among its students and employees between Sept. 4 and Oct. 8. The college had reported more than 180 cases by this time last year.
About 92% of the roughly 60,000 students attending the U's five campuses had filled out their vaccination forms as of Thursday, according to the university. Of those students, 96% reported they were vaccinated while 4% submitted religious or medical exemptions.
The majority of U classes are being taught in person this fall. Cherished campus traditions such as Gophers football game tailgates have returned, as did fall homecoming festivities, which were held in late September.
"It just speaks to the power of if you get enough people vaccinated, you really can reduce transmission substantially," said Michael Osterholm, director of the U's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
However, critics of the U's vaccination mandate have noted students are not required to submit documentation proving they were immunized. A growing number of faculty and staff are calling for the university to beef up its mandate, among other things.
The U's faculty senate passed a resolution this month asking the university to require proof of vaccination for students and employees and to routinely test all those on campus for COVID-19.
Faculty members also called for building ventilation improvements and greater access to personal protective equipment, and also for those with family members who are immunocompromised or too young to be vaccinated to have the option to teach remotely.
"It's stuff that just seems reasonable," said U political science Prof. Michael Minta, one of the resolution's sponsors. "I think everyone just wants to do what's right and keep everything safe."
University leaders are still preparing a formal response.
Similar concerns are being raised to Minnesota State leaders. Though the system's colleges and universities have so far reported fewer COVID-19 cases, student vaccination rates "are not where they need to be," said Mike Dean, executive director of the community college student association LeadMN.
Across Minnesota State's colleges and universities, just 57% of students had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Sept. 20, according to state immunization data the system obtained.
Vaccination rates at the individual schools range from 33% at Northland Community and Technical College's campuses in East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls to 69% at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.
Minnesota State did not impose a vaccine mandate on all students in its system. Instead, it chose to require vaccination only for students living in college-owned housing, participating in intercollegiate athletics or working internships or clinical jobs.
"If we're going to address the COVID pandemic and get back to normal, we really need to engage students on a peer-to-peer level," Dean said, calling for the system to better encourage students to get vaccinated.
Overall, though, schools in the system are in better shape than they were last year. Minnesota State University, Mankato and Winona State University, both of which experienced large case surges in September 2020, reported just 45 and 51 cases, respectively, among their students and employees last month.
"While the pandemic continues to have an impact on our day-to-day lives, I take great pride in the resilience and perseverance of our faculty, our staff, and especially our students," Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra said in a statement.
Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234