Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Tens of thousands of college students across the country have gotten infected with the coronavirus, and thousands more are being sent home to potentially spread the virus to their families and communities.

Why it matters: These concentrated outbreaks — and any subsequent mishandling of them — could fuel larger outbreaks across the country as we head into a fall that's already expected to be extremely difficult.

Driving the news: Colleges and universities have found at least 51,000 coronavirus cases already, according to the New York Times. Illinois State University, the University of South Carolina, Auburn University, the University of Alabama and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have all reported more than 1,000 cases.

  • Many colleges are sending students home in response to outbreaks which infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci called the "worst thing you could do," per ABC News.
  • White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx urged students to isolate at college. "Do not return home if you're positive and spread the virus to your family, your aunts, your uncles, your grandparents."
  • Some states with rising case counts overall are also those with large numbers of college cases, as my colleagues reported last week.

Between the lines: The traditional college experience is inherently social. Schools are struggling to keep students from partying, let alone deal with crowded student housing situations.

  • Some colleges have resorted to virtual learning and asking students to return home, while others have allowed students to continue living on campus.
  • There's also a hybrid approach like the one adopted by the University of Mississippi, which encourages students who need to quarantine "to consult with your family to consider your options for quarantine, including returning to your family residence," as ABC reported.
  • Many colleges have also set up isolation housing, but with varying degrees of success. Some students in isolation at the University of Alabama, for example, have been critical of the process, reports.

What we're watching: The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has one of the largest case counts in the country, ordered a two-week quasi-lockdown beginning last week. Students are permitted to go to class, get tested for the coronavirus, shop for groceries and do a handful of other activities.

  • It will serve as a good indication of whether colleges can get outbreaks under control, and thus an indication of the future of in-person learning.

Go deeper

Coronavirus cases increase in 17 states

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Data: The COVID Tracking Project, state health departments; Map: Andrew Witherspoon, Sara Wise/Axios

Coronavirus infections ticked up slightly over the past week, thanks to scattered outbreaks in every region of the country.

Where it stands: The U.S. has been making halting, uneven progress against the virus since August. Overall, we're moving in the right direction, but we're often taking two steps forward and one step back.

Updated 6 hours ago - Health

World coronavirus updates

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Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

Though health workers represent less than 3% of the population in many countries, they account for around 14% of the coronavirus cases reported to the World Health Organization, WHO announced Thursday.

Why it matters: The WHO called on governments and health care leaders to address threats facing the health and safety of these workers, adding that the pandemic has highlighted how protecting them is needed to ensure a functioning health care system.

Former Pence aide says she plans to vote for Joe Biden

President Trump in the Oval Office on Sept. 17. Photo: Oliver Contreras-Pool/Getty Images

Vice President Pence's former lead staffer on the White House coronavirus pandemic response announced on Thursday that she plans to vote for Joe Biden in the 2020 election, accusing President Trump of taking actions "detrimental to keeping Americans safe."

What she's saying: "It was shocking to see the president saying that the virus was a hoax, saying that everything's okay when we know that it not. The truth is that he doesn't actually care about anyone else but himself," said Olivia Troye, Pence's former homeland security, counterterrorism and coronavirus adviser.