McGill students say COVID-19 more widespread than reported by university

McGill University says there are only six cases of COVID on-campus and says there is no evidence of community transmission happening there. Students tell a different story.

McGill University is reporting just six cases on campus, no community transmission

McGill University is reporting six cases of COVID -19 on a quiet campus. But students living next door, in the Milton Park neighbourhood say they're seeing community spread. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Dozens of students at McGill University are testing positive for COVID-19 according to their peers, but the university is not counting most of those cases in its official tally, because they happened off-campus.

Jacob Rothery, a student living in Montreal's Milton Park neighbourhood next to the university, tested positive for COVID-19 this week. So did his three roommates.

Rothery says he knows of at least 20 other students who tested positive, and suspects more numbers are going to come from the popular and crowded student neighbourhood.

"There were a decent amount of students going to student bars," he said. "And then on top of that, you don't necessarily know who the people that you think you're in your bubble with are seeing, so they could be seeing a bunch of other people, who are putting themselves in riskier situations." 

Rothery says he and his friends did not violate public health guidelines, but that didn't stop an outbreak in his group of friends.

"People may have had it, but had no symptoms. So they had no reason to get tested. And then you have gatherings that aren't that big, maybe fifteen people or 10, but those 10 people see other people and their bubbles are a lot bigger than they think they are," he said. 

Jacob Rothery, who is studying political science at McGill University, is one of several in his group of friends who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. (Submitted by Jacob Rothery)

Thom Haghighat is another McGill student who is self-isolating, after he and his roommate tested positive for COVID-19.

He figures he caught the virus from one of the students returning to the "ghetto" from Toronto or elsewhere in Montreal.

Haghighat says he also knows of at least 25 students living in the area who tested positive, with a dozen in his immediate group of friends.

Like Rothery, Haghighat says he and his friends were limiting personal gatherings and keeping a small circle of people to interact with.

Despite this, he said, he still saw cases rise among his peers in the past week. He believes false negatives are part of the problem. 

"The first time we got tested, we tested negative. We still self-isolated, but I know a lot of people who would think they were in the clear to go see other people," he said, noting that he knew others who also got false negatives. 

Rothery had also received a false negative test result earlier this week, before testing positive.

Only "on-campus" numbers

Despite these anecdotal reports, McGill University has officially recorded just six COVID-19 cases this week on campus, and says there is no evidence of community transmission on its campuses.

McGill's main campus is downtown. The Macdonald campus, which houses agricultural and nutrition programs among others, is in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue in the West Island.

A spokesperson for the university said the number includes staff and students who were present on campus in the week preceding their positive COVID test. 

Most classes at McGill have moved online, which means far fewer people are frequenting the campus. 

Some students say the university should include the numbers of students who test positive off-campus, as well.

"It's important for them to at least take responsibility for the things that are going on in their student body, whether or not they're technically on campus, because I think that distinction is pretty useless," said Rothery.

For its part, McGill says it is working with public health authorities on strict protocols to limit the spread.

With files from Chloe Ranaldi and Justin Hayward

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