Early uptick in COVID-19 cases leads to unease on campus

Courtesy of Vassar College via VassarTogether COVID-19 Dashboard.

As the Vassar community transitioned back to campus this semester in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of cases spiked within the first week of students’ return. On Feb. 16, active cases were at an all time high of 36, less than a week after the last cohort of students moved into their dorms. Students who tested positive were immediately placed into isolation for their quarantine. As of Feb. 23, there are seven student active cases. 

Heading into the College’s third semester in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, administrators, staff and students alike knew that bringing everyone back to campus would pose a challenge. Despite having last semester under their belt, administrators understood even the most comprehensive move-in plan could not fully account for the pandemic’s national prevalence and the existence of new, more contagious variants. Yet even with the expectation of a higher case load in mind, it was still jarring for the campus community to see the number of COVID-19 cases quickly spike to higher than at any point last semester. 

As cases climbed in early February, many in the Vassar community expressed concern about the safety of on-campus living. “I’ve developed a habit of checking the online dashboard as soon as I wake up to see if anything has changed,” said Susanna Shull ’23. “I was extremely anxious a week and a half ago when the number of cases was climbing a lot each day, and I was expecting that we would be sent home,” she added. 

Administrators, too, expressed unease even while acknowledging the College’s positivity rate is within the range of expectations. “I am concerned for the health of each Vassar community member who contracts COVID-19, as much remains unknown about its short and long-term effects,” commented Director of Health Services Margot Schinella in a written statement. 

While some in the Vassar community expressed concern about the College needing to use more extreme mitigation measures to slow the uptick, including shutting down, administrators say sending students home is not on the table at this point. The VassarTogether website outlines measures that would be taken in the case of an uncontrollable outbreak on campus, including requiring self-quarantine for a residential house and limiting campus access only to those with a Vassar ID. In terms of shutting down, Vassar’s plan follows statewide guidance. “An outbreak of more than 100 cases for a two-week period would indicate that we needed to most likely move to remote study only,” explained Schinella. 

In response to the amount of positive cases on campus, President Elizabeth Bradley alerted students on Feb. 15 that indoor dining and podding, two reopening steps that were scheduled to begin on Feb. 17, were paused until reevaluation on Feb. 24. 

While students received multiple email communications urging them to follow social distancing protocols and warning them of potential disciplinary action, Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana explained in a written statement that community spread was not the reason for the uptick. “While some students have engaged in unauthorized gatherings, that has not been a significant source of the cases on campus,” he commented. “So far, our Health Service personnel attribute the majority of our cases to those contracted in home communities, or during travel.” 

Despite the fact that early testing was unable to catch all cases upon students’ arrival, the planning and execution of move-in was deemed a success by administrators and health officials, l. “We have successfully moved in more than 2,000 students, and the process has been safe and effective,” explained Alamo. Unlike last semester, students were administered rapid antigen tests upon arrival and prohibited from entering their residences until receiving a negative result.

Studies show that rapid antigen testing is not as accurate as molecular PCR testing, more often producing false negative results. Especially in asymptomatic cases, an infected individual may not have enough virus in their mucus to test positive. Schinella explained that rapid testing was effective in isolating a few students who received positive results, but the majority of cases were detected by the PCR tests that were done in the days following the students’ arrival. While students had to upload proof of a test taken within three days prior to arrival, the results of that test did not necessarily need to come back by the time they moved in, leading some students to move in without having a negative PCR result from the last few days. 

One factor complicating efforts to combat the spread on campus is the multiple variants of the virus currently in the US. Viruses will naturally mutate over time, and the emergence of new COVID-19 strains threatens to worsen the already uncontrolled spread in the US. Some specific variants, first found in the United Kingdom and South Africa, are more contagious than previous strains and are predicted to become the dominant strains in the US in upcoming months. The first detected case of the UK variant was confirmed in Dutchess County on Feb. 20. Because of the risk of variants, students have been encouraged to wear two masks, as double- masking has been found to lower the risk of exposure. 

As of now, it is not clear whether any of the more contagious variants are on campus. Schinella explained that the regular lab process of PCR testing does not indicate if a positive result is one of the new variants. The lab would only undergo further genomic sequencing tests if the case has concerning characteristics that would suggest it is a new variant. “We have not been made aware of any such testing being performed on our specimens to date,” she confirmed. 

While cases have declined, administrators advise students not to let their guards down. “The most important tool in helping control any possible spread is the thoughtful actions and care of our students to ensure that they and their peers are doing everything possible to follow our community norms so that we can have a safe and enjoyable semester,” said Alamo. 

The continued drop in cases now that students are no longer arriving on campus signals that Vassar’s protocols and the efforts of the student body will be able to mitigate the spread. “I am feeling less afraid and much more optimistic that we’ll have a whole semester on campus,” explained Shull.

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