A surge in Covid-19 cases among the student body in NUI Galway has caused concern among the University community and the wider locality.
The Health Protection Surveillance Centre confirmed on Monday that an outbreak of the virus has resulted in 135 positive cases.
The number is expected to rise, with a further thirty symptomatic cases awaiting test results.
Doors to the Arts Science building were closed on February 9th, with only those requiring access to labs and other practical learning methods being granted access to the University.
NUI Galway’s Student Health Unit informed Public Health of a sharp increase in cases last week, with case positivity from February 8th to February 14th standing at forty-five percent.
Case numbers in the centre had remained low throughout the month of January, with just fifteen positive cases confirmed through the health unit.
However, that number has increased significantly in February with fifteen cases confirmed over last Monday and Tuesday alone.
An email, sent on behalf of NUI Galway Dean of Students Michelle Millar, issued a notice to all registered students on Friday afternoon, informing them of a number of positive cases among the student body.
An email from the Department of Public Health later that evening confirmed the outbreak and encouraged those with symptoms to contact their GP or the Student Health Unit doctor.
Speaking on Tuesday, Medical Director at NUI Galway's Student Health Unit, Dr Eoin Mac Donncha, said that there were multiple factors contributing to the outbreaks, including the return of students to the city and densely populated student accommodation complexes.
“The reasons behind this are multi factorial. You would have had students returning that stayed at home over Christmas to sit online tests and exams. Even in the preceding week we could see a low escalation in the number of students contacting us with possible symptoms of Covid-19 who required referral for testing. But the explosion in positive cases only came in the beginning of last week.
“I think it’s important to note that most students will be observing the guidelines and sticking to the advice of public health, but unfortunately in Galway, because the student accommodation complexes, both private and on campus are very closely linked. There are very high numbers in a small geographical area which means that once the infection gets into any one accommodation setting, there is the risk of a very rapid spread. “
Mac Donncha said a minority of students disregarding public health advice was also a key reason for the upsurge in cases. He was keen to stress however that this those disobeying guidelines were in a minority.
“Although the majority (of students) are being well behaved and trying to do their best, there is a minority unquestionably who were disobeying guidelines and having house parties and intermingling with other household settings and that minority unfortunately pose a huge threat in terms of causing a significant spread of disease,” he explained.
“There may be some blame attributed to students, but it is a minority of students, but unfortunately their actions have led to a big problem.”
Gardaí confirmed that they had to attend a property in Gort Na Coiribe, a student accommodation complex in Terryland, around midnight on Wednesday February 10th, engaging with those present in the property.
Students’ Union President Pádraic Toomey echoed the University’s pleas and linked the rise in cases to students moving back to the Galway from across the country after Christmas.
“NUI Galway has the highest number of students not from its catchment area, which for us is outside Connacht. We have the highest number of students that are from other parts of the country compared to other colleges. So, when everybody came back that would not have helped the situation.
“Community cases are very high at the moment and everybody needs to be very careful, and to follow the guidelines, wash your hands, wear a mask, stay apart, do not congregate, cough or sneeze into your elbow and download the Covid-19 tracker app,” he said.
In September, students sparked national outrage when footage of youths congregating en masse around the Spanish Arch area of the city was shared across social media platforms.
“I think it’s important that students aren’t put to blame here again, as we learned during the Spanish Arch scandal that negative messaging does not work. It creates an “us versus them” scenario and that needs to be taken into account,” he finished.
* Paddy Henry is editor of NUI Galway's student newspaper, Student Independent News (SIN.ie).