By: Jit Ping Lee
University students across the United States returned to campus this fall in what is expected to be a test on the potency of vaccinations and COVID-19 tests.
Five Boston-area universities require both COVID-19 vaccination warrants and at least weekly testing to manage the spread of COVID-19 in their school communities. These colleges include Boston University, Harvard University, Northeastern University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Tufts University.
The University of Massachusetts Amherst also implemented a vaccination mandate, but updated its testing policy on September 22, requiring only members of the UMass community with exemption from vaccination to undergo weekly testing. to require all members who have been exposed to or develop symptoms of COVID-19 to be tested. .
Boston College has a similar policy requiring weekly testing only for certain “high contact” groups designated by the school, but requires COVID-19 vaccinations.
While Boston’s seven-day moving average for positive COVID-19 tests stood at 4.1% as of September 14, six of seven schools reported COVID-19 test positivity rates below 1%. UMass Amherst has a seven-day positive COVID-19 rate of 4.2% as of September 16.
These figures come despite a vaccination rate of over 90% for six of the seven schools – Tufts University does not provide public information on their vaccination rates – a figure significantly higher than the 63.7% reached by the city of Boston.
However, the prevalence of the highly transmissible Delta variant, which recently accounted for 99% of all COVID-19 infections in the United States, means that vaccination protects people from “serious illness and death,” associate professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University, Paul Beninger, said.
Beringer said the danger of COVID-19 outbreaks in a highly vaccinated community is the threat of infection to unvaccinated people.
“There is always a risk with this Delta variant,” he said. “The risk is significantly worse for people who are not vaccinated. “
The University of Massachusetts Amherst saw 371 cases of COVID-19 the week of September 8 – significantly more than the 149 cases detected a week earlier.
“The outbreak is linked to off-campus social activities, like going to crowded bars and indoor parties,” wrote Mary Dettloff, deputy director of the office of information and media relations at the UMass Amherst, in an email. “Right now our positive cases appear to be on the decline. ”
University administrators have continued to adjust COVID-19 policies based on surveillance testing numbers. Tufts University recently detected a spike in its test positivity rate, with a 7-day moving average of 0.39% significantly above their benchmark of 0.15% for all tests done since August 2020.
“We have seen an increase in COVID-19 cases among students and are monitoring the situation closely,” wrote Patrick Collins, executive director of media relations at Tufts University, in an email.
In an email sent to all undergraduates on September 14, administrators at Tufts University introduced new guidelines such as increasing the frequency of surveillance tests for undergraduates to twice a year. week.
Noting that students typically have a large number of contacts, Beninger said twice-weekly testing can “dramatically” reduce the number of people a positive individual could potentially have exposed.
“Once a week is probably not frequent enough at this point,” he said. “If you come on Monday and don’t come back until the following Monday… you could have exhibited an unlimited number of people in those five days. “
Ultimately, it comes down to a question of how schools prioritize the resources used to manage COVID-19 and provide other basic academic functions, said Ben Linas, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center.
“There is no one right answer because those two things are important,” Linas said. “So maybe the approach should be different as well and maybe we can save some of these resources. [on testing] and instead use them to provide more lessons or hire more teachers.
Linas encouraged all colleges that do not have a vaccine mandate in place to do so.
“Once everyone in your community is vaccinated, then maybe the settings can change because we need to be clear about what we’re trying to prevent,” Linas said.
Beringer advised the students to continue to practice vigilance while the school term continues.
“It means recognizing that there is still a virus,” Beninger said. “You must always recognize that you are part of a community and you must continue to protect others by wearing a mask and minimizing your social contact. ”