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Penn's undergraduate COVID-19 case count decreased from 1.90% to 0.93% — the lowest weekly undergraduate positivity rate of the spring semester.

Credit: Ana Glassman

Even after Penn's undergraduate COVID-19 case count decreased by over 50% for the second straight week, University administrators urge students to remain vigilant in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Undergraduates accounted for a total of 48 COVID-19 cases from Feb. 14 to Feb. 20, down from 104 the previous week. The weekly undergraduate positivity rate also decreased from 1.90% to 0.93% — making it the lowest weekly undergraduate positivity rate of the spring semester.

Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé said the decreasing positivity rate reinforces the fact that most students are continuing to follow COVID-19 public health guidelines. 

He emphasized, however, that while the lowered positivity rate is encouraging, "we cannot rest on our laurels or throw caution to the wind," particularly after a Penn student was hospitalized due to severe COVID-19 symptoms during the past two weeks, and at least two students have tested positive for the B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant since arriving on campus for the spring semester.

The student who was hospitalized is not the first Penn student to be hospitalized due to COVID-19, as all previous hospitalizations have been preemptive in nature, Dubé said. The most recent hospitalization was the most serious and the first that resulted in a prolonged stay, according to Dubé, who added that the student is no longer in the hospital and has received the care they needed. 

"The fact that this was a more serious hospitalization mirrors a trend we are seeing between the fall and the spring," Dubé said. "Students are becoming sicker after contracting COVID-19. They are showing more symptoms of greater intensity and for a longer duration." 

He emphasized that the virus affects everyone differently and that the hospitalization and presence of COVID-19 variants on campus should serve as reminders for students to be more vigilant.

After the University observed "worrisome trends" in the COVID-19 positivity rate — which had ballooned to 4.58% within the undergraduate population — just two weeks ago, Dubé explained on Feb. 9 that Penn would experience one of two scenarios: a continuation of the doubling of undergraduate cases or a plateau in the number of undergraduate cases. 

The University ultimately experienced the latter of the two scenarios, remaining at Campus Alert Level Two: Heightened Awareness, which requires the Penn community to continue following public health guidelines under heightened vigilance.

Penn most recently administered 15,527 total COVID-19 tests between Feb. 14 and Feb. 20, with a total positive headcount of 79 cases and a total positivity rate of 0.64%. The available on-campus isolation capacity also increased to 91.1%, up from 70.3% during the week of Feb. 7 to Feb. 13.

Director of Campus Health Ashlee Halbritter said the majority of students continue to correctly follow public health guidelines of mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing, and participating in regular COVID-19 testing. 

While the University has been able to reopen some campus facilities such as Pottruck Health and Fitness Center after observing lower positivity rates, Halbritter emphasized the gravity of the nation's climbing death toll, with the United States recently surpassing a total of 500,000 deaths due to COVID-19. 

"The amount of life lost is so staggering and unlike anything we have ever seen," she said. "It's just a lot. We [at Penn] remain so committed to getting Penn reopen for the students, but it is worth pausing to remember where we are and what has happened and is continuing to happen."