Undergraduate Dies of COVID-19 Complications

The death of Appalachian State University sophomore Chad Dorrill is among the first reported since many colleges across the country resumed in-person instruction this fall.

September 30, 2020
 
Photo by Marie Freeman. Courtesy of Appalachian State University.
A student at Appalachian State University in North Carolina died this week after contracting COVID-19.

A student at Appalachian State University, in Boone, N.C., died after experiencing complications related to a COVID-19 infection, the university confirmed Tuesday.

Chad Dorrill was diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier this month and later experienced complications, according to an announcement from the university’s chancellor, Sheri Everts. Dorrill was a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in exercise science, the High Country Press reported. He graduated from Ledford High School, in Davidson County, N.C., in 2019.

He was noted for his kindness and attention to others in statements posted to social media and in press reports. One acquaintance recalled him showing up at her door with a bag of toys for a kitten she’d just adopted.

Dorrill’s death is one of the first reported among students -- and a general undergraduate population -- since some colleges resumed in-person instruction this fall. However, differences in the way colleges track COVID-19 infections and a lack of clear standards on reporting deaths among students makes it difficult to say for certain.

Dorrill’s family asked people to wear masks and quarantine if they test positive for a coronavirus infection. He was a healthy 19-year-old, said a statement attributed to his mother that her son’s former travel basketball team posted to Facebook. The statement has since been made private.

“As our family suffers this incredible loss, we want to remind people to wear a mask and quarantine if you test positive even without symptoms,” the statement said, according to several media reports. “You have no idea who you can come in contact with that the virus affects differently. Chad was just incredibly tired for two weeks and little did we know it was secretly attacking his body in a way they have never seen before. The doctors said that Chad is the rarest 1-10,000,000 case but if it can happen to a super healthy 19-year-old boy who doesn’t smoke, vape or do drugs, it can happen to anyone.”

Dorrill lived off campus this semester at Appalachian State. His classes were online. He started feeling unwell earlier in the month, and his mother urged him to return home, quarantine and be tested, according to the announcement from Everts, the university’s chancellor.

He tested positive, followed procedures for isolation, and his doctor cleared him to return to Boone. After returning, he experienced additional complications. His family picked him up, and he was hospitalized.

Dorrill died Monday night in Winston-Salem, according to the Watauga Democrat. It’s not clear where, exactly, he contracted the virus.

“The hearts of the entire Appalachian Community are with Chad’s family and loved ones during this profoundly difficult and painful time,” Everts wrote. “Tributes shared by friends and loved ones show the positive impact Chad had on the communities he loved and called home, which included App State and Boone.”

Appalachian State is recording a rising number of students with COVID-19. As of Tuesday, a university data dashboard showed 159 active cases among students, meaning they were in isolation. It added 36 cases between Monday and Tuesday. Almost twice as many cases were active Tuesday as they were a week earlier, when 80 cases were active as of Sept. 22.

The university’s testing positivity rate for the week ending Sept. 27 jumped to 9 percent, up from 3.5 percent the previous week.

Appalachian State also tracks clusters of cases when at least five cases are recorded within a 14-day period and they are plausibly linked. Clusters are counted as active until no cases have been in isolation for 28 days. Tuesday, the university reported seven active clusters with a total of 24 active cases.

Since March 27, the university has tracked 561 cases among students, 26 among employees and 41 among subcontractors. It wasn’t reporting any active cases among employees or subcontractors Tuesday.

Appalachian State enrolls about 20,000 total students this fall. The overwhelming majority, about 18,000, are undergraduates studying on its main campus or online.

The university began fall classes Aug. 17 with a combination of face-to-face, hybrid and online courses.

“All of us must remain vigilant with our safety behaviors wherever we are in our community,” Everts said in her statement Tuesday. “We can flatten the curve, but to do so, we must persevere. From the smallest acts to the most important personal relationships, we must actively work each day to reduce the spread of this highly communicable disease.”

Appalachian State is a member of a University of North Carolina system, where plans to reopen this fall for face-to-face instruction have been extremely controversial. The system flagship, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, sent undergraduates home after just days on campus in August as COVID-19 infections were spiking.

Appalachian State’s Faculty Senate has voted in favor of a resolution to hold the University of North Carolina system’s Board of Governors and the university’s chancellor, Everts, responsible for any illness or deaths occurring as a result of reopening.

“Any loss of life is a tragedy, but the grief cuts especially deep as we mourn a young man who had so much life ahead,” the UNC system’s president, Peter Hans, said in a statement following Dorrill’s death. “I ache for the profound sadness that Chad Dorrill’s family is enduring right now. My heart goes out to the entire Appalachian State community.”

The country is grappling with a continuing crisis on a “scale that is difficult to comprehend,” Hans said. That doesn’t diminish the “acute pain we feel alongside Chad’s parents, family, and friends,” who are experiencing a personal and irreplaceable loss.

“Chad's family asked that this moment stand as a stark reminder of how COVID-19 is deadly serious for all of us, even for otherwise healthy young adults,” Hans said. “We have a heightened duty to one another in these extraordinarily trying times, and we all need to remain vigilant. I join his family and Chancellor Everts in urging everyone to follow public health guidance by wearing a mask, washing hands, maintaining physical distance, and limiting gatherings.”

Student Deaths Elsewhere

Dorrill is not the first college student reported to have died this fall because of COVID-19 or complications from the virus.

Earlier this month Jamain Stephens, a 20-year-old senior who played defensive tackle on the football team at California University of Pennsylvania, died. His death was initially reported as caused by COVID-19 complications, but the cause was subsequently retracted because official confirmation had yet to be delivered. A lengthy piece published last week by The New York Times said Stephens died from a blood clot after being hospitalized with COVID-19 and pneumonia.

A spokeswoman for California University of Pennsylvania did not provide additional details Tuesday, citing a policy of not sharing medical information about students.

This summer, a Pennsylvania State University student died of respiratory failure and COVID-19. Juan Garcia, a 21-year-old from Allentown, Pa., died June 30. He was a student in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

Garcia was the first known Penn State student whose death was related to the coronavirus, according to the university. He’d been living off campus in State College, where Penn State is located, when he started feeling ill. Then he went home to Allentown June 19 and was tested for COVID-19 the following day.

National tracking of COVID-19 infections and deaths related to college campuses is virtually nonexistent. NASPA, the association for student affairs administrators, is not aware of any group that is tracking student deaths related to the coronavirus, according to its president, Kevin Kruger.

The New York Times surveyed over 1,600 U.S. colleges and universities, including every four-year public institution and every private college taking part in NCAA sports. It found at least 130,000 cases and at least 70 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. Most cases were announced since students returned to campus this fall. Most deaths took place in the spring and were among college employees.

“With no national tracking system, colleges are making their own rules for how to tally infections,” the Times story said. “While The Times’s survey is believed to be the most comprehensive account available, it is also a near-certain undercount.”

The number of COVID-19 cases among traditionally college-aged adults has been rising in many parts of the country. From Aug. 2 to Sept. 5, weekly COVID-19 cases among 18- to 22-year-olds increased by 55 percent nationally, faster than testing rates increased during the period, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a report Tuesday. Increases were greatest in the Northeast and Midwest.

“It is likely that some of this increase is linked to resumption of in-person attendance at some colleges and universities,” the CDC report said. “Detailed exposure information from patients in this age group (e.g., through targeted epidemiologic studies) can help identify the specific drivers of the observed trends.”

Young adults should take precautions like mask wearing, social distancing and hand hygiene, according to the report. Higher ed institutions should “take action to promote healthy environments.”

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