LOUISVILLE, Ky. — One month into the fall semester, Kentucky’s major public universities have avoided large outbreaks of COVID-19 and helped their campuses reach vaccination rates that far exceed the rest of the state. But some critics think there’s still more to do to keep students, staff, faculty and their families safe.
Data reported on public dashboards shows that the University of Louisville has conducted 3,155 COVID-19 tests since mid-August and has seen a 4.7% positivity rate. The University of Kentucky has conducted nearly three times as many tests — 11,604 — and has seen a 2.7% positivity rate. Both of those are far lower than the state’s 12% positivity rate.
Western Kentucky University and Eastern Kentucky University don't report the number of tests administered on campus, so their positivity rates aren’t available. They do report raw numbers of positive cases though. WKU's has had 501 cases among students, faculty, and staff, while EKU has had only 70.
“We are extremely pleased with how our campus community continues to cope with the ongoing COVID pandemic,” UofL spokesman John Karman told Spectrum News 1. “By wearing masks indoors and following our other COVID protocols, students, faculty and staff are working to ensure that we have a safe and healthy semester.”
COVID-19 mitigation measures have been fairly consistent across campuses. In early August, as students prepared to return to in-person classes, the presidents of all of Kentucky’s public four-year universities released a joint statement saying masks would be required in all indoor public places on campus, regardless of vaccination status.
The return to campus coincided with a major spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations around the state. At UK, the state’s largest university, daily active cases spiked at the start of Sept., roughly two weeks after classes started. In the week between Aug. 28 and Sept. 3, there were 165 average daily cases. In the most recent week for which data is available, that number has dropped to 93.
UK spokesperson Jay Blanton said the rate of increase on campus, even at its peak, was below the state’s and Fayette County’s. “No implementation is perfect, but a walk around campus underscores the fact that our students — and other members of our community — are working hard to comply with the policies put in place to protect our campus,” he said.
None of Kentucky's public schools have required students or staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19, despite a broad national movement that has seen more than 1,000 universities do so. The lack of a vaccine requirement has been a point of contention on some campuses. In early Sept., thousands of faculty and students at UK signed a letter calling for a vaccine mandate. Faculty at UofL have been agitating for the same behind the scenes.
A recent opinion column in The College Heights Herald, WKU’s student newspaper, criticized the school’s “failure to guide and support its Hilltoppers through the COVID-19 pandemic.” Written by graduate instructor Sarah Olive, the column said university administration is relying too much on “personal responsibility” and called on for a vaccine mandate.
Even without a mandate, WKU is leading the pack when it comes to on-campus vaccinations. According to the school’s dashboard, 89% of respondents to its voluntary vaccination status survey report being vaccinated.
University spokesperson Jace Lux attributed that success to the school’s vaccination incentive program and a policy that allows vaccinated students who have come in contact with a positive COVID case to avoid quarantine. "I think that has really provided additional incentive for the campus community to get vaccinated if they weren’t already,” Lux said.
UofL, where 84.2% of students, faculty, and saff are vaccinated, and UK, where the number is 85.4%, aren’t far behind WKU. All three schools are significantly more vaccinated than the counties in which they’re located.
There are reasons universities have higher vaccination rates than the areas they're located. Surveys show that those with more education are more likely to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The campuses also incentivize vaccines while making them unavoidable for those who want them.
“We run vaccination clinics where the students are,” said Valerie Hardcastle, the Executive Director of the Institute for Health Innovation at Northern Kentucky University. “We've had one in the student union, in the dormitories, in the larger buildings on campus. I think it would be very hard to avoid getting a vaccine if that was something that you were interested in pursuing.”
Hardcastle estimated that the school’s vaccination rate is on par with UK, UofL, and WKU, despite its dashboard showing that only 37% of the campus is vaccinated. She said that discrepancy is likely due the reporting being voluntary. EKU does not publicly report a campus vaccination rate and spokesperson did not respond when asked.