Duquesne University Students Offered Testing Kits, Encouraged To Be Vigilant During Surge

On today's program: David Dausey from Duquesne University outlines precautions for keeping students and families safe ahead of the holidays; A judge has ruled to count ballots cast in a hotly contested state senate race; and scientists have modified the American chestnut to survive blight, but some disagree GMO trees are the answer.


Duquesne University pushes forward with COVID-19 precautions ahead of holidays
(00:00 — 7:36)

Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine is asking colleges and universities to develop a strategy for testing students for when they return to campus after the holidays. But ahead of the break, Duquesne University is providing COVID-19 tests to students as well. 

Duquesne University’s Executive Vice President and Provost, David Dausey, says testing is one way to ensure safety

“We wanted parents and students to have some measure of confidence with the students returning,” explains Dausey. Students were provided an Everlywell COVID-19 Test Home Collection Kit that they could mail in for free and get their results online.

Dausey, an epidemiologist himself, says he and other school administrators suspected a rise in cases ahead of the holidays, so it was always the plan to end instruction ahead of Thanksgiving. Students will take exams in December, remotely, and will not return until January 21 of next year.

The university has confirmed 272 cases since Tuesday, November 17.

Dausey says most have been compliant when it comes to wearing masks and observing social distancing.

“I don’t want to be pollyannaish about it, we have had our incidents, parties where there have been violations and other things,” says Dausey. “But I will tell you that on the whole I’ve been incredibly proud of the population at Duquesne.”

Duquesne suspended Greek life on campus for violating COVID guidelines, but the university will discuss plans to reconvene sororities and fraternities in February of next year.

“We did have carrots and sticks this semester for students that engaged in behavior that was against our protocols,” says Dausey. “The biggest was that we could certainly tell students that they were no longer allowed to take classes on campus or be on campus and would have to go home and take classes remotely.”

While some have been concerned campus outbreaks could drive community spread of coronavirus, Dausey says that’s not the case.

“At least in the Pittsburgh region we don't have evidence to suggest that because oftentimes students are isolated on campus or primarily on campus,” says Dausey.

To date, it remains unclear how higher education contributes to community spread, but there is evidence to suggest colleges and universities can cause more cases in the community.

The university delayed the start of the semester by two weeks and asked students and faculty to isolate themselves as much as possible in that time. 

“We did that at the start of the fall semester and it was a surprisingly good way for us to identify potential cases,” says Dausey. Additional testing ahead of the semester, he says, is still under consideration.

No longer tied up in lawsuit, 2,349 ballots could decide state senate race
(7:43 — 12:32)

A judge ruled Wednesday that election workers in Allegheny County can count 2,349 mail-in ballots that were received by Election Day but weren't dated by voters. The decision, and a companion ruling about other ballots called in question, could decide the outcome of a hotly contested state Senate race between Democratic Jim Brewster and Republican Nicole Ziccarelli.

WESA’s Lucy Perkins reports only 30 votes separate ten-year incumbent Brewster and challenger Ziccarelli.

“Brewster has that very, very slim lead, but that’s why these lawsuits came up,” says Perkins.

Common Pleas Judge Joseph James reasoned the ballots should be counted because “there was no fraud with these 2,349 mail-in ballots, that they were in question from a mere technical omission,” explains Perkins. The county timestamps every mail-in ballot upon receipt, and these ballots were received by election day.

Republicans filed an appeal Wednesday, November 18.

In an effort to restore them, scientists are debating the merits of genetically modified chestnut trees
(12:38 — 18:00)

The iconic American chestnut largely disappeared from eastern forests after a blight took down some four billion of these giants a century ago. Now researchers are moving forward with a genetically engineered tree that allows chestnuts to survive the blight.

Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant reports despite the advances, some worry about the consequences of allowing a genetically modified tree into the wild. 

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.