Student COVID-19 cases spike to 60+, according to students

As cases have risen nationwide, VUMC has proactively installed a clinical space in the Medical Center East Parking Garage to treat COVID-19 patients in the event of a surge.


A deserted walkway between Calhoun Hall and Benson Hall on March 21, 2020. (Photo courtesy Kate Weaver)

Eva Durchholz, News Editor

Almost two weeks after students returned to campus for spring break, the number of Vanderbilt students testing positive for COVID-19 has skyrocketed. The Hustler reported 11 confirmed student cases Monday, since then, multiple students have estimated the number of student COVID-19 cases at 60 or above. 

A student-created GroupMe for COVID-19-positive Vanderbilt students has 60 members, multiple students reported on March 20. The Hustler has identified at least three students who have COVID-19 who are not members of the group message.

A Vanderbilt senior, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss his friends’ sensitive medical conditions, also said that he thinks there are at least 60 Vanderbilt students with COVID-19.

“There are 60 cases that I know of, and I’m sure there are more,” the student said in an email to The Hustler. “It’s an unfortunate reality, and I hope that everyone starts to get better soon.”

The student said that he has several friends in the hospital battling the virus. Another student said that the students in the aforementioned group chat are mostly juniors and seniors that live off campus. The GroupMe also includes some students who were studying abroad this semester and have not been on campus in recent weeks. 

The confirmed number of COVID-19 cases in Tennessee has reached 371 as of the evening of March 21. On Sunday morning, Mayor John Cooper announced a “safer at home” order for all of Davidson County for the next 14 days, which closes non-essential businesses and urges people to stay at home. Davidson County residents account for 140 of these cases, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. In Tennessee, 122 patients are between the ages of 21 and 30.

First-year Sophia Yan tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday in a quarantine hotel in her hometown in China, she said. Yan says she left Vanderbilt on Monday, March 16 and began showing mild symptoms the next day. Given the incubation period, she says she was definitely infected at Vanderbilt. 

Yan contracted COVID-19 despite her best efforts to limit exposure to the virus: she said she intentionally avoided upperclassmen after hearing about the travels of certain groups of students, and she said that none of her close friends attended St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Yan said she thinks Vanderbilt is misstepping by not publicizing numbers of cases and non-identifiable whereabouts, like China and South Korea are doing.

“In general I think the university didn’t raise the public awareness of the virus enough to convey the message that it’s a serious matter,” Yan said in a message to The Hustler. “The university’s lack of urgent attention is reflected by students’ indifferent attitudes.”

A Vanderbilt spokesperson declined to comment on reports of at least 60 Vanderbilt students testing positive for COVID-19 and instead offered the following response:

“The safety and well-being of our campus community remains the university’s top priority during this challenging time, and that extends to protecting the privacy of those affected by COVID-19,” the statement read. “Positive tests for COVID-19 have now been confirmed for several undergraduate students, and we’re continuing to monitor the situation and work directly with those affected.” 

The university statement added that the vast majority of those with confirmed cases are not on campus. The statement also said that due to applicable federal student privacy data laws, the university is unable to disclose widely within the Vanderbilt community personally identifiable information about any student who has tested positive for COVID-19. 

Other universities have been more transparent about the spread of COVID-19 among their communities, providing at least partial counts of how many faculty, staff or students have tested positive for COVID-19. Harvard University, Duke University and Northwestern University have all been publicly tracking at least some COVID-19 cases among their communities.

Harvard announced yesterday that there are six positive cases among the Harvard community and Duke announced Tuesday that 15 members of the Duke community tested positive following overseas travel. Northwestern University has a running log of six faculty, staff or students who have confirmed cases of COVID-19, though the list does not include cases that “pose no risk of exposure to others in the community.”

On Monday, Vanderbilt announced that “several undergraduates” have tested positive for COVID-19 in a statement that urged the community to practice social distancing. This announcement came a day after The Hustler reported ten student COVID-19 cases, each confirmed by the students themselves. In a March 11 email which alerted students that classes would be online for the rest of the semester, Interim Chancellor Susan Wente announced that a VUMC healthcare worker tested positive for COVID-19. 

As cases have increased rapidly in Davidson County, Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) has created a “special space” to treat COVID-19 patients in the Medical Center East Parking Garage, according to a Facebook post by Vanderbilt LifeFlight, Vanderbilt’s EMS Service. 

The picture of the COVID-19 clinical area in Medical Center East Parking Garage featured in the LifeFlight Facebook post.

An accompanying statement on the Facebook post from VUMC Associate Chief of Staff Dr. Stephan Russ explained that this area is temperature-controlled and was built to prepare for a potential surge in COVID-19 patients. The statement said that, like many other large academic medical centers, VUMC has established an area away from the main emergency department to treat potential COVID-19 patients. 

In the comments of the post, the LifeFlight page clarified that the area is to be used for assessment, and not to keep patients for more than a few hours, adding that patients will be admitted or discharged based on clinical criteria.

“Again, this area is not for “hospital overflow” and was created as a walk-in area and stretcher area for the ED and EMS use. We feel it’s better to be prepared than not,” the statement read.

Updated March 22 at 10:10 a.m. to include information about Nashville Mayor John Cooper’s “safer at home” order. Updated March 22 at 9:37 a.m. to include the account of a first-year student who has COVID-19.