COLUMBIA — With a campus that tentacles out into the Capital City, South Carolina's largest university is focused on keeping student coronavirus cases on campus.
"Our cases will spike," University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen said Wednesday, the day before fall in-person and online classes begin.
The university is taking a number of steps to contain those cases that naturally will occur when 31,000 students come together, including installing more campus cameras to track mask use and social distancing, emphasizing medical care to its own students and a promotional campaign aimed at encouraging safe student behavior, Caslen said.
In making decisions, USC will not focus solely on the number of cases among students and faculty but whether the infections are spilling into the community, something the school will monitor closely, Caslen said. The school also insisted all students get tested before returning to campus and is requiring on masks on campus.
Richland County accounts for the third most cases, more than 9,300, in South Carolina and has the state's fifth-highest positivity rate for coronavirus, averaging 23.5 percent over the past two weeks, according to state public health data.
Applying the county's recent positivity rate to the USC student population and more than 7,000 students could become infected, or enough to fill about 40 percent of Colonial Life Arena. The school has 280 beds available on campus to quarantine students unable to isolate in their own dorm or apartment.
If COVID-19 cases hit USC students and staff, they could fill up the few Capital City hospital beds that remain open.
Hospitals in Richland and Lexington county reported occupancy rates of around 85 percent. This includes all patients, not just those hospitalized for COVID-19. Between the two counties, just 200 beds are available. COVID-19 patients make up about 14 percent of the roughly 8,100 people hospitalized statewide.
Caslen said students he's talked to know what's at stake.
"Frankly, they only need to look at other universities that have gone online recently to see the impact of bad behavior," he said. "They should also know we will not hesitate to go fully online as we did last March if student behavior does not match my confidence in them."
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill made it one week into the fall semester before it was forced to scrap plans for in-person instruction. During that first week, 130 students and five employees tested positive for the coronavirus, with the positivity rate on campus swelling to about 14 percent and sending hundreds into isolation.
Caslen expressed empathy for the University of North Carolina not being able to stay open. USC is the only large four-year college in the Palmetto State starting its semester with in-person instruction.
"We have put lots of effort into this particular plan but outcomes matter," Caslen said. "Obviously none of us want the outcome that University of North Carolina experienced."
USC has put a lot of stock in its student health care capabilities. But so did Chapel Hill faculty leaders said in warning.
"UNC has some of the best public health, infectious disease (and) health communications folks in the country," Mimi Chapman, faculty chairwoman at UNC-Chapel Hill told NPR. "If we can't bring those resources to bear in the way that we did with a more successful result, I think it should give every other large public university in the country pause before going forward."
Most of UNC's infections happened off campus, she said.
Caslen said he has been pleased with student behavior he's witnessed so far at USC, but he also knows there are going to be exceptions. He's hopeful city and state mandates requiring masks, issuing 11 p.m. curfews on restaurant alcohol sales and policing house parties in Columbia's residential areas will be enough to hold violators accountable.
On campus, the school has installed more cameras in high traffic areas to monitor mask wearing and social distancing. Caslen did not say what USC would do with video. The school also has used a promotional campaign, called I Pledge Columbia, to have students avoid risky behavior that could spread the virus.
USC has conducted more than 8,000 coronavirus tests on campus, said Debbie Beck, director of the school's Student Health Services. About six new cases are being discovered daily.
"We do believe testing before people move back to campus has really made a huge difference in our numbers as we start our new semester," she said.