A COVID tale of two universities: This historically Black Alabama college got its opening right; their mostly White neighbor flubbed it

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University of Alabama football head coach Nick Saban and the school's elephant mascot, Big Al, wear masks on the Tuscaloosa campus. Credit: Kent Gidley/University of Alabama/AP
[The University of Alabama Tuscaloosa and Birmingham campuses] were supposed to have the same clean slate when classes resumed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Every student had to test negative before setting foot on campus. Everyone had to use a smartphone application to check for symptoms daily. And everyone heard the same pleas from university leaders: Keep the campuses safe.

More than a month later, 2,375 Tuscaloosa students had tested positive for the virus, 6.2 percent of the student body, according to data through Oct. 1. Birmingham had 109 cases, a tiny 0.48 percent of the students.

The staggering disparity at two of Alabama’s large universities illustrates how the coronavirus can barrel through some schools while barely affecting others, even in a state that is considered a hot spot. Experts say it is difficult to pinpoint why Tuscaloosa and other universities faced outbreaks and others did not, but they suspect that enrollment size, the campus culture and students’ ages probably played roles.

Related article:  Nearly 60% of COVID-19 cases spread by asymptomatic carriers, CDC finds
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Ria Hearld, an associate professor in the UAB Department of Health Services Administration and chair of the Faculty Senate until Sept. 1, said she suspected one reason coronavirus infections at UAB remain low is because many students major in health care and have a front-row view of the hospitals treating covid-19 patients.

“These are our friends, our colleagues, at the front lines,” she said. “It really hits home.”

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