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Richmond Officials Call for Stronger VCU Response to COVID-19

Councilwoman Lynch
Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch pictured during the removal of the Stonewall Jackson statue. Lynch is calling on VCU to move its classes online. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

One week into reopening, more than 70 people have tested positive for COVID-19 at Virginia Commonwealth University, according to official data released by the university on Monday. Of students who tested positive, 43 are currently in isolation at on-campus housing.

VCU began releasing its official case numbers late last week through an online dashboard, and will continue to update the data on a daily basis.

City Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch commends the university’s efforts to control its on-campus facilities, but says she’s concerned about large social gatherings off campus that can put students at risk of contracting the disease and spreading it to the rest of the community. 

“I get their need and their thirst to interact with one another. We all want to interact with one another,” Lynch said in an interview with VPM. “But we have to be careful. We have to limit the amount of folks that we’re around, keep our social distance, wear our masks.”

VCU began in-person instruction last Monday. Students received kits from the university with hand sanitizer, spray disinfectant and reusable face masks. The schools’ health services conducts daily health checks for students experiencing coronavirus symptoms, and began prevalence testing of asymptomatic volunteers earlier this month. 

In a tweet, Lynch called on VCU to lay out a plan to prevent further spread of COVID-19 on campus. She also called on the school to move its classes online for the remainder of the semester. 

In a statement, VCU spokesman Mike Porter said the university's Public Health Response Team would recommend “operational changes” based on a number of factors, “including prevalence of COVID-19 on campus and in the Richmond area, testing availability, and available hospital and isolation space.” He also said most of the on-campus cases are associated with one cluster. 

Lynch -- whose district includes VCU -- highlighted the proximity of the Monroe Park campus to housing areas with high concentrations of senior citizens, such as in the Randolph and Oregon Hill neighborhoods. She also emphasized the nearby historically Black neighborhoods. 

“When we say Black Lives Matter, we have to back that up with actions that protect and improve the quality of those community members’ lives,” Lynch said. 

Data from the Virginia Department of Health shows Black and Latino residents in Richmond have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19.

Mayor Levar Stoney also sent a letter to university presidents last week, including VCU’s Michael Rao, providing guidance to local universities. He suggested schools should require students to download Virginia’s contact-tracing smartphone app.

“This app works silently and unobtrusively to anonymously track the spread of COVID-19. It is an irreplaceable tool in the arsenal of the public health professionals working every day to stop the spread,” Stoney’s letter reads.