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Over 600 students at Australian National University test COVID-positive one week after return to campus

An outbreak at Australian National University (ANU) last month saw 12 percent—around 660—of the 5,500 students residing on campus contract COVID-19. The outbreak spiraled out of control after opening-week orientation events with students returning to campus from summer break.

Situated in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), which hosts the nation’s capital Canberra, ANU is one of Australia’s largest universities. Many of its over 21,000 enrolled students travel from around the country and internationally to study at the institution, living in cramped student accommodation.

The Australian National University in Canberra [Source: ANU, anu.edu.au]

Over 200 cases had been recorded across 12 ANU residence halls over the weekend of February 19–20. By February 25, the number of positive cases had emerged past 600. Throughout the outbreak, ANU management refused to give an accurate figure for the number of positive cases.

ANU Chief Operating Officer Paul Duldig said face-to-face classes would continue despite the outbreak. “We don’t see any reason why case numbers in the halls will impact on us being able to teach on campus. It would really be a much broader community concern to make us reconsider that,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

After initially being moved to a dedicated quarantining facility on campus, COVID-positive students were required to self-isolate in their rooms. The university indicated that students in self-isolation would be provided with meals, medical and wellbeing support, and would attend classes online.

However, reports soon emerged that isolating students were struggling to get meals delivered and have their rubbish disposed of.

Third-year student Lily Hassett told the ABC during the outbreak that she was still at the residence hall and had to ask friends to bring her food. “I don’t know where I’m supposed to be or what I’m supposed to be doing,” she said, adding, “Ever since I’ve tested positive I’ve tried calling the office, I’ve emailed them and got no response.”

Charlotte Carnes, a senior resident at ANU’s Wamburun Hall, told the Canberra Times there was confusion over the meal deliveries process at her self-catered hall. After being told isolating students had received dinner at the same time as lunch, Carnes received calls and texts from residents at dinner time asking when meals would be delivered.

The ANU Students Association reported that quarantining students struggled to find spaces in online classes and recording equipment in some classrooms was inadequate for studying remotely.

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