How a handful of students caused Western University's COVID-19 outbreak

·4 min read

A group of students living off-campus, who came together and engaged in high-risk behaviour, triggered a COVID-19 outbreak that has raised to 28 the number of positive tests among Western University students in London, Ont.

After months of case counts that put London among the lowest areas for coronavirus transmission in Ontario, the local health unit is now dealing with a serious outbreak. According to the Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU) the new cases originated with a group of 15 young people including 11 who lived in three different student houses.

They came together and mixed with others in bars and at parties over a five-day stretch starting Sept. 8. During these get-togethers, they took part in behaviour that showed little regard for rules in place to curb the spread of the deadly virus.

At a news update Thursday, Dr. Chris Mackie, London's medical officer of health, presented a chart that showed how detailed contract tracing linked these individuals and how they came together at various gatherings. The chart shows how the students went out to bars together, met to watch a basketball game and even shared drinks and an e-cigarette.

Of the 28 Western students now infected, all but one lives off-campus. A statement from the university issued Thursday said all students and their close contacts are in isolation, including the student on campus, who lives in residence.

Western president Alan Shepard called the outbreak "very concerning" at a media update Thursday.

"We expect our students to comply with public health rules," he said. "We're asking them not to host parties. Not to attend parties. Limiting social activities to your roommates and significant others will help stop the spread of the virus. Common sense is critical."

'You are going to kill someone'

London Mayor Ed Holder was more scathing, saying he was "angry and frustrated" over the outbreak. He implored young people who are "part of the problem" to change their behaviour.

"If this continues, you are going to kill someone," he said. "Should daily case counts remain this high for a sustained period, community spread is a near certainty, and it's a matter of 'when' not 'if' somebody dies. What an awful burden to carry."

London announced 11 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday; 10 are Western students and one a student at Fanshawe College. The university confirmed those numbers, combined with cases announced over the weekend, mean a total of 28 Western students have now tested positive.

London has had 776 coronavirus cases since January. Of those, 40 remain active, all others are "resolved." A total of 32 cases have been identified in the past five days.

The outbreak has prompted Western to halt many non-academic activities on campus, including suspending athletics and recreation activities and in-person student club meetings and events.

Shepard said the university wouldn't hesitate to enforce its code of conduct, which carries punishments that range from reprimand to full expulsion for behaviours that put others at risk. Shepard also, however, conceded that the code's authority is limited when it comes to student behaviour off-campus.

Rob Krbavac/ CBC News
Rob Krbavac/ CBC News

Risky behaviour

In presenting the contact tracing information, Mackie said the cases are linked to risky and unnecessary close contact.

"It's gathering in large groups, it's gathering with people from outside of your household or outside of your bubble," he said. "It's unnecessary, very close contact. Things like sharing food, drinks and e-cigarettes, things we know are the highest risk of spreading COVID-19."

A social media campaign aimed at reminding students about COVID-19 rules was launched before students began to arrive around Labour Day Weekend. While most students appear to be following the rules, people have called police after seeing house parties where students weren't distancing or wearing masks.

There have not been many incidents of close contact between the students who tested positive and other students on campus, Mackie said.

Other cases likely

However, Mackie also said that given the incubation period of the virus, it's likely more cases will emerge. So far however, Mackie said there's been no "spillover" from the student cases into London's general population.

This is the largest spike in cases in the London region since mid-August, a climb that began last week when students returned. On Sunday, the local health unit declared a community outbreak.

Two downtown bars popular with the student crowd crowd, Lost Love and El Furniture Warehouse, closed temporarily last week.

Since cases started to increase this week, Londoners are rushing to get tested. Wait times at London's two assessment centres were not as long Thursday, running about two hours at both the Carling and Oakridge sites, compared to three hours on Wednesday.

The health unit has asked people to only get tested if they are symptomatic. The university on Friday set up a testing centre on campus.

On Tuesday, the day both centres had to turn people away because they were at capacity, the Carling site reported testing 425 people. The Oakridge facility tested 404.

Meanwhile, Ontario is reporting 293 cases of COVID-19 on Thursday. In a tweet, Health Minister Christine Elliott said that 70 per cent of the new cases were found in people under 40.

Kate Dubinski/CBC News
Kate Dubinski/CBC News