Covid-19 rips through Dunedin students

Source: 1News

During Otago University’s Orientation Week, students are usually queuing for events or parties - but this year they’re lining up for Covid-19 tests instead.

Most of those flatting in Castle Street, the city’s student heartland, are now isolating.

Some students living there estimate over 80 per cent of flats on the street are in isolation.

"Honestly I don't even know anyone that isn't isolating or doesn't have any negatives in their house" says student Brooke Wilson.

Wilson is one of seven young women in one flat who have all tested positive.

They say they most likely caught it from catching up with friends upon returning to Dunedin from holiday.

"At the start of Flo Week they announced there was Covid at one of the parties and then on it kind of just spread," says Jamie McConnell, another member of the flat.

There's almost 2000 active cases in the southern region, and it's estimated a big chunk of those are students.

Younger people are the biggest contributors to current case numbers.

Ten to 29 year olds made up almost half of the infections in the last two weeks, but only one in five ended up in hospital.

Infectious diseases expert, and Otago University's newly appointed Vice Chancellor Professor David Murdoch says the high amount of cases among students was anticipated.

"There was a high chance we were going to get an increase in numbers fairly quickly here with students coming from all over the country," he says.

Professor Murdoch has only been in the role for three weeks.

His first email to students read: 'Unfortunately, I am going to be known as the Vice-Chancellor whose first communication to students was at the top of a Covid-19 Red Level email. This is not how I had hoped to begin in the role. However, it is a signal of the time we are in.'

He and his team now face a unique challenge.

"We have thousands of students within residential colleges here in Dunedin, and of course the ability to isolate for cases and contacts will vary by college but still is fairly challenging.

"Clearly the concern we've had is when the numbers get up just how we are going to manage with that," Murdoch says.

Following the cancellation of Orientation Week, and the University moving all lectures online for the first half of the semester, there was concern students may not make the move south.

But staff are pleased to see that's not the case.

"We've had over 95 per cent occupancy of all of our colleges in the first weekend of arrival which is amazing given the fact we gave an early indication that our lectures were going to go online for the first half of the semester, a really great indication from the students that they really want to be here," says Murdoch.

Help is now available for students who have to isolate in their flats.

The Otago Students' Association is delivering food parcels to those hit with the virus.

Fully funded by the University, they include pasta, noodles, rice, toothbrushes and fruit and vegetables.

"In order to support students if they test positive or if they're isolating due to Covid, we need to provide them something to keep them safe to keep them happy and let them know we're there for them," says the student Association President Melissa Lama.

There's been so much demand for the parcels, the association had to find a bigger space to pack them.

"Yesterday we were sitting at about 200 parcels and then I've been informed that today it's close to a thousand or just over a thousand requests," says Melissa Lama.

But she says there is more support needed than just food parcels.

"It could be things like more hardship for power and one thing to mention is the students who have casual jobs, especially in the events industry in Dunedin, not having that access to income they're really just getting by as it is as students."

As Universities around the country also brace for a surge in cases, Professor David Murdoch says they're all banding together.

"There's a lot of sharing of experiences between universities and I think certainly one thing I've learnt is the importance of making early decisions to give certainty to staff and students."