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Penn students are reporting an increase in COVID-19 cases across campus, matching similar trends in Philadelphia and nationwide. Credit: Max Mester

Penn is encouraging precautionary measures against COVID-19 as students report a widespread increase in cases across campus.

While Wellness at Penn no longer has public data on the campus's COVID-19 positivity rate, students told The Daily Pennsylvanian that they have noticed an increase in cases since the end of summer. All students that the DP spoke with reported knowing multiple contacts who had tested positive since returning to campus in August.

Some students said that Penn's existing resources and guidance has left them disappointed or unsure how to proceed after testing positive for COVID-19 during this latest surge, while others have felt secure with the information that has been shared by the University.

College senior Ellie McKeown, who is immunocompromised and recently tested positive for COVID-19, said she has been "failed" by Penn’s existing resources, which have "jeopardized" her safety and the safety of those around her. 

McKeown said the removal of Penn's testing center was a “huge policy failure" and called on the University to publicize COVID-19 information to prevent people from having to hunt for information — often with no success. She added that instating a temporary COVID-19 testing center closer to campus would improve access.

"Just not testing doesn’t make COVID-19 go away," she said. "I shouldn’t have to choose between my education and my health. I especially shouldn’t have to hear the institution I attend debate whether my life is actually worth protecting as a disabled individual.” 

McKeown said she consistently used masks since the beginning of the pandemic and has been saving up tests since last semester. She said she has encountered a lack of testing availability, adding that many online links to resources direct to dead University web pages, and the walk to Student Health and Counseling’s Medical Care office is prohibitively difficult.

Both McKeown and College first-year Kathleen Zhang said that when they called Student Health to inform them of positive COVID-19 test results and seek guidance, they were redirected to voicemail and did not receive a response until nearly a full day later. 

"I just ended up going home to avoid any complications with my roommate," Zhang, who tested positive using a test from a friend, said. 

In contrast, College first-year Lucas Zhu said he was satisfied with the help he received from Penn. Zhu picked up a test from Student Health and Counseling’s Medical Care office at 3535 Market Street — only having to show his PennCard — and self-isolated at home in New Jersey.

“Penn was pretty helpful in letting me know what to do,” Zhu said. “I think Penn has been doing a fairly good job as they are currently following CDC guidelines when dealing with COVID-19, [and] I think they should continue to do what the CDC recommends when dealing with COVID-19.”

Rebecca Huxta, the director of public health at Wellness at Penn, wrote that Penn's public health team is continuing to support contract tracing efforts and keep the COVID-19 FAQ section on the website updated.

“Headlines concerning raising COVID-19 case counts understandably cause concern and worry,” Huxta wrote.

Wellness at Penn is also working with College Houses and Academic Services to provide and distribute rapid COVID-19 tests to all thirteen college houses, she wrote. 

The apparent resurgence in COVID-19 at Penn is concurrent with a similar surge nationwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hospital admissions attributed to COVID-19 have increased by 18.8% over the past week, although experts say this may be understating COVID-19 transmission levels in the United States.

"As more students returned to campus, we saw an increase in the number of positive COVID-19 test results being reported to our public health team; in a parallel fashion, PDPH has reported an increase in the number of positive cases in Philadelphia County," director of communications for Wellness at Penn Mary Kate Coghlan wrote in a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian.

An increase in upper respiratory infections is common around this time of year, Wellness at Penn's Medical Director of Student Health and Counseling Vanessa Stoloff wrote. 

“We have means to minimize the spread of all respiratory infections within our reach: Wearing a mask, washing our hands, and coughing in our sleeve, all of which can reduce transmission,” Stoloff wrote. 

The reported uptick comes after Penn closed its on-campus COVID-19 testing site and the Penn Cares website around May 12 upon the end of the public health emergency in the U.S. The Penn Cares Testing Program was also suspended — eliminating Penn’s on-campus COVID-19 testing site, related contact tracing measures, and the COVID-19 resource call center.

College first-year Natasha Kobelsky, who tested positive using two tests that she bought at CVS, was disappointed with the apparent lack of a requirement for her to report her positive test results.

"The information was not readily available and [it] took a lot of jumping from site to site and calls and redirects to get to where I needed to be and figure out what protocol I was supposed to follow," Kobelsky said. 

Students are "starting to panic" and testing as word spreads of positive results, Nursing senior Joshua Lee said. The same day that he tested positive in the ER, so did three of his friends. 

Outbreaks are also concentrated among some student groups, including the heavyweight rowing team, where College first-year Finn Broder said several of his teammates tested positive. He said student-athletes are required to quarantine and abstain from competing until they take a heart exam. 

Stoloff wrote that students who feel unwell and are seeking assistance can schedule an appointment with Student Health and Counseling through the Wellness Portal or by calling (215) 746-WELL.