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University residences on alert as Stellenbosch student...

Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen

University residences on alert as Stellenbosch student tests positive for Covid-19

Students at Stellenbosch University campus. (Photo: Rebecca Pitt)

A week into the start of the academic semester and a student at Stellenbosch University, who resides in university accommodation housing 500 students, tested positive for Covid-19. This comes as outbreaks in Stellenbosch municipality have been linked to the return of students.

Stellenbosch University is one of the few universities that have opened for hybrid learning – a mix of face-to-face and online – and welcomed all students back to campus accommodation. 

The rector and vice-chancellor of the university said in a communiqué on 15 March that this would give students an “optimal learning experience”. Since early March, Stellenbosch students have been trickling back to the university town.

Their return brings welcome economic activity to the town, but also comes as the Western Cape government warned about Covid-19 outbreaks in the Cape Winelands region, last week. These outbreaks had been traced back to the return of students. 

The outbreaks further come as provincial governments and experts warn about an approaching third wave. At the time of going to press, there was no clear indication whether there had been more Covid-19 cases on the campus or in university residences.

As of 19 March, Stellenbosch accounted for 95 active Covid-19 cases of the  Cape Winelands District Municipality’s total of 389 cases. Sandra Maritz, communications officer for the Cape Winelands Municipality, said case numbers in Stellenbosch had risen.

“Our local teams are having a closer look at this as part of our surveillance process,” Maritz said.

Stellenbosch University spokesperson, Martin Viljoen, said the university follows relevant national health guidelines, complemented by residence protocols that emphasise regular self-screening on the Higher Health tool.

Managing the pandemic at the moment is largely based on behaviour. The university’s strategy to limit the risk of contagion is based on continuous communication to support healthy behaviour of students, and foregrounding individual responsibility, explained Dr Pierre Viviers, the senior director for campus health services at the university.

“Our [campus health services] supports the institutional community – staff and students – with various interventions such as screening and contact tracing in collaboration with the Stellenbosch Hospital,” said Viviers.

The student, residing in Metanoia residence, went home to self-isolate on 17 March after showing symptoms. He had also informed all those he had been in contact with.

Viljoen said only one other resident was identified as a close contact and had also left to isolate at home. The residence was informed about the positive case, Viljoen said. 

“All those individuals contacted were advised to isolate if necessary, to continue to strictly abide by regulations and to monitor themselves for symptoms,” said Abdullah Karbanee, a house committee member at Metanoia responsible for safety, security and discipline in the residence.

Karbanee, who also headed the establishment of the residence’s “Covid Policy”, said there is no inter-residence communication about cases that arise in the various residences but this was the first case at Metanoia.

“The residence protocols include the following, but [are] not necessarily limited to: A no-visitors rule, encouragement to do daily screening, that no social gatherings are allowed in residences and supporting the various awareness campaigns, such as posters and regular communiqués via student leaders; mask-wearing; keeping of social distance and regular sanitising [sanitizer is provided],” Viljoen said. 

The residence policy also stipulates that only those students contacted directly by the campus health services, after a positive case is identified, are required to isolate. Rooms in residences are allocated for isolation purposes, said Viljoen. 

Managing behaviours

Karbanee said it is suspected that the student contracted the virus before the academic year started.

“During that time, students were in constant movement and contact with people, due to the logistics of moving back into the residence,” said Karbanee.

For the most part, students have been responsive to protocols with many expressing gratitude for the stringent regulations, he said. “Because of the nature of social interactions – and I don’t believe this is an issue unique to Metanoia or even Stellenbosch – and how invested people get in these interactions, it is often the case that as interactions play out for longer times, people start forgetting the regulations more often.”

But when student leaders step in, students “immediately become cognisant of the rules again”, said Karbanee. 

Aware of the risk 

Students and staff who returned to town are well aware of the risks, says  Karbanee: 

“The full recommencement of the academic year poses a risk to everyone. All residents on Stellenbosch campus were invited back to the residences, and this large collection of individuals in the same living spaces is no doubt a major risk factor”.

But “a necessary step to be taken to properly ensure that students get the proper university experience that we have enrolled to get… regulations put into place by Metanoia, Stellenbosch and the government do allow for interacting in a safe environment, if every individual properly abides by the regulations”. 

“It takes one or two individuals ignoring or forgetting these regulations to put a lot of people at considerable risk.” DM

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