VMI COVID cases are coming down since mid-February spike

The cases at VMI reached 190 active cases on Feb. 16, but the cases dropped to 89 on Feb. 23.

Shauna Muckle

Virginia Military Institute saw a major spike in cadet COVID-19 cases beginning earlier this month, prompting new restrictions. 

The spike began Feb. 2, VMI spokesman Col. Bill Wyatt said. By Feb. 8, the school was recording as many as 31 new daily positive cases among cadets, according to its COVID-19 dashboard.

VMI implemented additional safety measures before breakout, but COVID-19 cases at VMI spiked shortly afterwards. Photo by Mikah Holcomb, ‘21.

The Lexington News-Gazette reported on Feb. 16 that there were 190 active cases on campus and 243 people in quarantine. 

Interim Superintendent Maj. Gen. Cedric Winds implemented new restrictions on campus Feb. 4. The school closed post to all visitors, suspended visitation within barracks and suspended “march downs” by corps of cadets. Cadets were already unable to leave campus. 

Cases are now back on the decline. As of Tuesday, Feb. 23, there are 89 active cases on campus and 143 people in quarantine. 

Many cadets are quarantined in the four hotels the VMI contracts with: the Days Inn, the Howard Johnson, Motel 6 and Econolodge. School staff are delivering meals to the cadets, even in the face of recent winter weather, Wyatt said. 

VMI is authorized to plow snow at the hotels in order to reach quarantined cadets, Wyatt said. 

This month’s spike of close to 200 was much higher than the fall semester’s biggest spike, with 49 active cases, Wyatt said.

“It’s been taxing on our resources, but we’ve had those resources available,” Wyatt said. “We put together our operations plan over the summer last year and we planned for these spikes.”

One possible cause of the spike, Wyatt said, is breakout, VMI’s culminating event for first-year students, where they officially go from “rats” to fourth-class cadets. 

The school implemented additional safety measures prior to breakout. All events were held outside and cadets were given guidance on when to wear masks and when to distance, Wyatt said. 

Breakout was still held, Wyatt said, because it’s a crucial part of the VMI experience. 

“We felt like, while there may be some risk, the event was important enough to do everything we can to mitigate those risks but to still have the event,” Wyatt said.

Both W&L and VMI are closed to outside visitors. Photo by Mikah Holcomb, ’21.

VMI and Washington and Lee differ on one key COVID-19 protocol: testing. 

While W&L started testing the entire student body weekly in the winter semester, VMI tests only NCAA athletes, symptomatic cases and close contacts. 

Dr. Jane Horton, W&L’s Director of Student Health and Counseling Services, said the university decided to switch lab vendors and transition to weekly testing after reviewing the pattern of cases last fall and the national surge in cases in December. 

Like W&L, VMI examines its restrictions every week and decides whether to update those restrictions based on current active cases and guidance from medical staff and the state. Wyatt said that the school will consider updating current visitation restrictions next week.

If cases continue to decline, Wyatt said the school hopes to do something similar to what it did last fall, where it offered general permits to each class of cadets allowing them to leave post. 

“We want to provide them with something to break up the monotony of going to class and doing military duty,” Wyatt said. 

Wyatt said he recognizes the strain pandemic restrictions have placed on cadets. 

“Our cadets have made a lot of sacrifices this academic year because of the Covid protocols, especially when it comes to our first class cadets, our seniors, who typically enjoy a lot of privileges,” Wyatt said. “They haven’t had those privileges this year.”