As the fall semester wraps up, students and staff are making plans for a long winter break. Hundreds of UM students will travel for the winter holidays, while others will be forced to extend their stay on or near campus due to coronavirus exposure — while rates of COVID-19 reach all-time highs in Missoula County.

There are currently no restrictions on traveling out of Montana, but about half of those coming from other parts of the United States are theoretically required to obtain a negative test or submit to a quarantine in order to enter the state. At UM, the administration is asking students to begin limiting their contact with others now, before everyone leaves for break.

“Our goal is to protect students from unknowingly bringing home COVID-19 to their families that they’re visiting when they return for the holidays, or wherever they might be going during the break,” UM spokesperson Paula Short said. “What we’re asking students to do is continue to go to work, continue to attend classes, continue to do those sort of essential things, but restrict your activities outside of those really essential items.”

Thanksgiving is traditionally the busiest travel time of the year, and this semester comes to an official end the day before the holiday, on Nov. 25. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the holidays pose a large risk for transmission of the coronavirus, due to increased interactions.

Short urged students and staff to take precautions.

“If students are planning to travel home for the holidays, and that home includes an elderly relative or an immunocompromised family member that they might be spending time with, they should take this extra seriously,” she said. “It’s really to try to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19.”

Short said the University has done a good job of mitigating spread. She credits the campus’s relatively small caseload to UM’s cancellation of extracurricular activities in early October. While UM leveled out to about 50 active cases over the last two weeks — with 352 total since Aug. 12 — Missoula County has continued to see numbers rise, to more than 800 active cases last week.

More than 20 people in Missoula County have died from the virus in the last month, most of them over 70 years old. There have been several outbreaks at retirement homes, and a record 44 people were hospitalized last week.

Missoula City-County Health Department director Ellen Leahy said students should make a safety plan for their returns home, which might include wearing a mask around family members.

“I would really recommend the same [COVID-19] precautions that they’ve been using at school. And be particularly careful, because when they go home, it is possible that during travel they could acquire infection, even if they take precautions,” Leahy said.

Such precautions include frequent handwashing and disinfecting of surfaces, staying six feet apart from others and wearing a mask.

“These holidays are going to be a huge temptation,” she said. “I cannot say this enough, but this virus spreads through people you know. It is your friends. It is your family.”

Though the large majority of students will be free to travel during winter break, some will have to ride out the end of the semester in quarantine and isolation. Short said that these students will get the same support from UM Housing and Dining as they did during the semester.

The Curry Health Center will also remain open during break. Staff will continue to perform COVID-19 testing as long as supplies are available.

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