Outside the BU bubble, off-campus students have an almost twofold risk of being infected—“It’s not the same world out there”
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.
The number of Boston University’s coronavirus cases continues its upward trajectory, rising to another record daily high of 15 new cases on November 10. Between November 4 and 10, a total of 49 students, as well as 19 faculty and staff, tested positive for the virus.
Those rising numbers, combined with the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, have prompted a change in BU’s message to students: any student who travels outside of the BU bubble over Thanksgiving, whether that’s traveling within Massachusetts or to another state, will be required to stay in place when they return until they have three negative COVID-19 tests. Put more bluntly, the message to students is this: if you go home, stay home.
“I think it’s really concerning overall—there’s COVID fatigue,” Judy Platt says. “There’s the significant challenge of social restrictions that are hampering people’s mental health and well-being. We cannot be shaming people; people need to interact.” But she says that while the risk of interacting with others cannot, realistically, be totally eliminated, it can be reduced.
“Our messaging isn’t not to see anyone,” Platt says. “But you can wear masks inside. And you can keep up with your serial COVID-19 testing. Test, test, test—don’t miss your tests.”
Platt and Gloria Waters say the biggest issue is that the types of small get-togethers that were less problematic in the summer or early fall are resulting in the virus spreading more rapidly and easily now that the coronavirus landscape has changed. One of the biggest adjustments is that people are taking their socializing indoors, where the risk of the virus spreading is dramatically higher.
“It’s not the same world out there that we were in a few months ago,” Platt says. At the Massachusetts lowest point in July, there were fewer than 200 new cases popping up each day across the commonwealth. Now, those daily numbers are in the thousands. (On July 11, there were 288 new cases; on November 10, there were 2,660.)
Waters says BU’s coronavirus testing compliance numbers are improving. But there are still a significant number of students who fall out of compliance every day, and they are mostly off-campus students. That’s especially problematic because most of the new cases at BU are stemming from off-campus students.
“Early on, the number of positives on and off campus was about the same,” Waters says. “Now, positives are increasing much more quickly off campus.”
“It’s about a twofold risk if you’re off campus,” Platt says. “You’re more in the community and less inside the BU bubble.”
Although BU offers isolation housing to off-campus students who test positive—in an effort to protect their roommates from catching the virus—not everyone who has tested positive is taking advantage of that opportunity.
Platt says since the University opened its Clinical Testing Lab and rolled out its coronavirus testing and surveillance program in late July, BU’s contact tracing team has not found evidence of the virus transmitting in classrooms, although there have been a few instances of workplace transmission.
“The majority of transmission is happening inside households or from off-campus gatherings,” she says. “These gatherings don’t have to be large. We have people trying to be thoughtful in their gatherings, getting two households together, or having someone visit from out of state. But your bubble is only as good as every member of your bubble.”
Since BU’s coronavirus testing program began, Platt says, no one from BU who tested positive for coronavirus has become so seriously ill that they’ve had to be hospitalized. However, she says, a few students have been referred for additional care, going to an emergency room for evaluation and then returning to their isolation housing on campus. “We’ve been fortunate thus far that we have not had severe cases,” she says. “But as we have more cases, that potential increases.”
Despite no acute medical emergencies arising from BU coronavirus cases, some members of the University community who have recovered from coronavirus have been dealing with lingering symptoms.
“There are a lot of long-term symptoms or concerns that don’t require you to seek medical care, but they are disruptive,” Platt says. “Loss of taste and sense of smell, fatigue, these symptoms are harder to quantify, and we’re all still learning more about long-term COVID syndrome.”
BU’s contact tracing team hasn’t identified any “super-spreader” clusters on campus, only diffuse transmission activity stemming from roommates, family members, or other close contacts. But with Thanksgiving around the corner, Waters says, BU is doubling down on asking its students in Boston to stay put for the holiday: “Even for some students for whom home isn’t far away, just a car ride away or even within Massachusetts—if students travel, when they come back we’re going to require them to shelter in place until they’ve had three negative coronavirus tests.”
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.