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Faculty and grad students at Michigan university speak out against school's handling of campus COVID-19 outbreaks

Taylor Haelterman / WKAR/MSU

Dozens of Michigan State University faculty members and graduate students spoke out during a virtual town hall Thursday against what they say is a lack of transparency by the school over the handling of COVID-19 outbreaks on campus.

Kate Birdsall, the President of the Union of Non-Tenure Track Faculty at Michigan State, said she believes the university is not being entirely transparent.

“I'm going to go on record and saying I believe that they are lying," she said.

MSU spokesperson Dan Olsen says the COVID-19 dashboard shows positive cases from its early detection program, those getting tested at the university’s health center, as well as those getting tested in sites throughout Ingham County.

"Since August 2, cases had remained relatively low," Olsen said. "And what you see is an increase which we had anticipated, as students started to arrive back to campus and getting tested, those numbers have peaked and are starting to come down, which is consistent with both our early detection program as well as the cases reported by the Ingham County Health Department to our office."

As of Thursday, the school’s COVID-19 Dashboard confirms 381 infections since the beginning of August through its early detection program.

According to Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail, the data on the COVID-19 dashboard accurately reflects the number of students who are testing positive for COVID-19 in the community.

"We have a system that can accurately match positive cases with MSU students. I don't know why people are wanting things to be worse than they are, we should be celebrating that we are where we are at," Vail said.

Ingham County is currently considered an area of high COVID-19 transmission by the county health department.

Vail says the numbers at MSU are low because the vaccination rate at the university is a little over 87% while the rate of vaccinations in the county are near 63%.

"The vaccines are working," She said.

But Birdsall said she is skeptical of the accuracy of the number of vaccinated members in the MSU community.

A faculty member, who did not wish to be identified, spoke out against the university’s decision to no longer alert faculty and staff about some cases of possible COVID-19 exposure in classrooms.

“So where's this protection? A vaccine mandate with no teeth. No confirmation of verification for self reported vax status, effectively dismantling any on campus contact tracing, and not notifying instructors of COVID positive cases in their classroom," they said.

"My own thought on that is that if I were to —which I would not do I'm fully vaccinated— but if I were to lie or want to lie about my vaccination status, it's fairly easy to just go into the form and lie," Birdsall added.

Olsen says the university hasn't seen any evidence to indicate that transmission is happening in classrooms.

"Because of the cautionary measures we have put in place with the mask requirements indoors, all places on campus, as well as their vaccination requirement for all students, faculty and staff, in addition to the HVAC system updates that we have made in our classroom spaces," he said.

The school will notify those who have been in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19. The university defines close contact as being within 6 feet of someone who tests positive, for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24 hour period.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community. Michelle is also the voice of WKAR's weekend news programs.