The death of 19-year-old Chad Dorrill, a student at Appalachian State in North Carolina, has shaken the rural campus in the Blue Ridge Mountains, prompting questions about whether the college is doing enough to keep its students and faculty safe.
Young people have generally been at lower risk of developing severe Covid-19, and there have been only a few student deaths linked to the coronavirus. But Mr. Dorrill’s death has made the virus real for his classmates.
“It’s not a hoax, that this virus really does exist,” said Emma Crider. “Before this, the overall mentality was ‘out of sight, out of mind.’”
As if to underscore that point, cases at Appalachian State, part of North Carolina’s state university system, spiked sharply last week. On Thursday, the school canceled a football game and announced outbreaks in four residence halls, two fraternity houses, the volleyball team and the football program. The school’s dashboard shows more than 700 confirmed Covid-19 cases since early June, across a 20,000-student campus.
Appalachian State has not conducted the kind of costly, widespread mandatory testing and tracing of people with and without symptoms that has helped control the virus at some campuses. Rather, the school has offered voluntary testing at its student health center and at “pop-up” test sites where students can walk up and be tested twice weekly.
That approach, the school’s website says, is based on C.D.C. guidance, which has advised against testing all students upon arrival. Health experts have criticized that guidance as weak and confusing, but many large public colleges have used it as the basis of their approaches.
In the wake of Mr. Dorrill’s death and the spike in cases, tensions are rising over whether Appalachian State needs to take stronger measures to contain the virus.
“There has been polarization between those who say, ‘Just wear a mask, we’ll be OK,’ and the faculty who just don’t want to be in the room,” said Rick Rheingans, chairman of Appalachian State’s department of sustainable development, who has been tracking the school’s health measures. “My argument has been that we need rigorous testing and active tracing, quarantining and isolation. We can’t reopen if we’re not safe.”