As BU cases reach new records, a plea to “keep your mask on as much as you can—even in your house”
Now that Boston University is publishing its COVID-19 testing data on a public-facing dashboard, Gloria Waters, BU vice president and associate provost for research, and Judy Platt, director of BU Student Health Services, are providing a weekly update on the overall health of the BU community.
In the last week, Boston University has reported a record number of new coronavirus cases, with 76 students and 48 faculty and staff testing positive between December 2 and 8. The latest news about BU’s numbers comes just as Massachusetts is set to receive its first shipment of vaccines for COVID-19, which Governor Charlie Baker discussed on Wednesday as he shared plans on what groups will be the first to receive it.
The vast majority of BU’s uptick in cases appear to be directly linked to the Thanksgiving break—either the travel surrounding it or the mixing of households that see each other only occasionally.
“We have still not seen any spread in classrooms,” Judy Platt says. “The increased spread is directly related to the Thanksgiving holiday, and we are still inside the window of people turning positive.”
Since Thanksgiving, Platt says, people who have been infected with COVID-19 seem to be more symptomatic, rather than asymptomatic, and to have more symptoms overall. Throughout the semester, about 40 percent of coronavirus cases at BU have been asymptomatic. But with the colder fall temperatures, people are spending more time indoors, which she says creates more opportunities for prolonged exposure to someone who is infectious.
“We are seeing that people aren’t just being exposed through one solitary, 15-minute exposure, but that they are being exposed to someone infectious for a day or so within a household setting,” Platt says.
Data from BU’s Clinical Testing Lab appears to back up that theory. “When tests come back positive, in general we are seeing that they contain a much higher viral load than tests that came back positive earlier in the semester,” Gloria Waters says. That indicates that someone was repeatedly exposed to an infectious person and could explain why there is a higher prevalence of symptoms, as well.
To combat that, Platt says, people should consider wearing masks as much as possible—even in their house.
On Wednesday, Baker announced that Massachusetts will soon receive 300,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses from Pfizer. The first shipment of 60,000 doses will arrive next week to 75 of Massachusetts’ 77 hospitals. The first wave of vaccinations will be given to healthcare workers, long-term care and assisted living residents, and first responders. Starting in February, a second wave of vaccines will be administered to essential workers, people with one or more high-risk factors for severe COVID-19 illness, and people 65 and older. By April, everyone else should begin receiving vaccinations.
Although that timeline provides some light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, this winter will no doubt remain dark. Boston’s wastewater is teeming with COVID-19, indicating that the virus is spreading rampantly in the community and that the exponential increase of positive cases is likely to continue rising and may even worsen into the New Year due to holiday gatherings. With 102 BU students in isolation and more likely to test positive in the coming days, Platt and Waters say it looks like some BU students may be spending the first part of their winter intersession in isolation or quarantine.
“Isolation and quarantine housing will be running as usual, although we’re hoping we don’t have many students in there,” Platt says. “No one wants to be stuck there between December 24 and the rest of the break.” But for students who test positive or are exposed to someone who’s tested positive, BU’s isolation and quarantine housing will provide a safe place to stay until they no longer carry the risk of bringing the virus home, or spreading it into the community during travel.
“If students in isolation or quarantine can go home by private car, they will have that option, but that risks bringing COVID-19 into their community and home to their families,” Platt says.
Waters says BU’s Clinical Testing Lab will continue operating through intersession, albeit on a reduced schedule. BU expects a couple of thousand students, faculty, and staff to remain on campus over intersession, and they will need to keep up with their testing schedules.
“Sign up now for your intersession testing slots,” Waters says. “Anyone staying on campus should book their tests in advance so that we can accommodate everyone.”
And for students who aren’t planning to stay on campus? “Limit your travel, get tested before leaving campus, and do not leave campus until your test has come back negative,” she says.
Gloria Waters spearheaded teams of BU scientists in their development and deployment of a campus-wide COVID-19 testing program and chairs the Community Health Oversight Group, which scrutinizes BU’s testing data each day. Judy Platt, a member of BU’s Medical Advisory Group, oversees clinical management and isolation of students who test positive for coronavirus and helps manage BU’s contact tracing efforts.