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Maharishi University avoids COVID outbreak

Students at Maharishi International University in Fairfield enjoy an outdoor film in late August at the amphitheater on the campus’s Gil Younger Central Park. Students had to wear masks and socially distance themselves from one another at the event. (Photo courtesy of Rod Eason)
Students at Maharishi International University in Fairfield enjoy an outdoor film in late August at the amphitheater on the campus’s Gil Younger Central Park. Students had to wear masks and socially distance themselves from one another at the event. (Photo courtesy of Rod Eason)
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FAIRFIELD – Through proper planning and perhaps a pinch of good luck, Maharishi International University has been able to avoid the huge spikes in COVID-19 cases that have rocked the state’s two largest universities and neighboring schools such as Iowa Wesleyan University.

As of Wednesday, MIU has reported a single case of COVID-19. That student was put into a 14-day quarantine, was asymptomatic, and has since left quarantine. Other schools in the state, meanwhile, have seen their COVID numbers skyrocket. As of Monday, the University of Iowa reported 1,589 positive cases since students arrived for the fall semester, while Iowa State University has reported 1,475 positive since Aug. 1.

Down the road in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa Wesleyan University reported Monday that 42 students and four staffers and faculty have reported positive since early August.

David Todt, MIU’s chief administrative officer, said he is pleasantly surprised at the university’s COVID fortune. MIU attracts students from all over the country and the world, and Todt said he was bracing for five to 15 cases at the start of school. But so far, the virus has been kept at bay on campus.

One of the main ways the university has attempted to prevent an outbreak is by testing and isolating all students. Those who remained on campus over the summer were tested once, and those who arrived at the start of the fall semester in mid-August were tested twice. They received a COVID-19 test when they arrived, and again five days later, to catch those people who might have caught the virus in transit. For the first two weeks they were on campus, the newly arrived students were isolated from the students who remained on campus over the summer. They went through a separate lunch line at the Argiro Student Center, started the semester by taking classes online, and were discouraged from mingling with other students.

Todt said testing revealed only one student with COVID-19. That student was sent to live in the guest and conference center where they could be alone without sharing any public facilities with other students. For two weeks, meals were taken to that student’s room. Todt said the HVAC system in the conference center is designed to avoid circulating air from one room to another, and instead uses air blowing over cold or hot pipes in the room to cool or warm it.

Todt said there is discussion among university administrators about giving the student body periodic COVID-19 tests throughout the semester. The students are encouraged to venture off campus sparingly, and if they must leave the county, to isolate themselves when they return.

Todt said he understands it’s not realistic to expect all students to perfectly follow the rules, which is why the university is looking into further testing options. He noted that, based on conversations with biologist John Fagan, the university can produce its own saliva tests for COVID-19 just as Yale University is doing now.

A few students have trickled in since the fall semester began, and those students are doing the two-week isolation just like the students who arrived in August.

Most of the university’s student activities have migrated online to avoid large crowds. However, it has found a few activities that can be done safely in person. For instance, for the past two weeks the university has shown an outdoor film at the amphitheater, where students are required to wear masks and socially distance.