Concerns over holiday travel decisions loom large: “Stay on campus for Thanksgiving. Or travel home and stay there.”
Boston University publishes 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, provide a weekly update on the overall health of the BU community.
Boston University’s coronavirus numbers are slowly coming down from last week’s alarming peak, but Judy Platt says that despite having a few days in a row with positive tests back in the single digits, she remains concerned that it’s “just a matter of time” before the numbers creep back up.
“We did have a bit of a ‘coming down’ from the peak we saw last week,” Platt says. “I think that’s multifactorial—with Halloween and the election, we had some cluster events. But now we are continuing to see community spread increasing at significant rates.”
Between November 11 and 17, 33 students, as well as 12 faculty and staff, tested positive for coronavirus. There are currently more than 50 students in isolation housing while they recover from COVID-19. Testing compliance is moving in the right direction—off-campus students who had lagged behind the rest of BU’s community segments in keeping up with their coronavirus testing have started improving their protocol adherence.
“It is critical that students maintain their testing cadence, even through the break, given the increase in cases seen in Boston over the past few weeks,” Gloria Waters says.
Platt says that when someone tests positive, BU’s contact tracing team always asks if they have an idea of who might have exposed them to the virus. “Over the past week or so, we are finding more people know who they were exposed to,” she says. “The same interactions that people were having with others back in September, for example, are now resulting in positives.”
That’s to say that people aren’t necessarily changing their behaviors—they are still trying to be responsible and socialize in small groups. But with more prevalence of coronavirus across Boston, the state, and the broader region and nation, those same get-togethers are now riskier. “And we’re just seeing that people are spending a lot more time indoors,” Platt says.
Looking ahead to Thanksgiving, she says that many on-campus students have completed a survey about their holiday plans. About half of on-campus students say they plan to stay at BU, celebrate with their roommates, and take advantage of the four-day-long holiday menu BU Dining is offering. Approximately a quarter of students say they will travel home for Thanksgiving and stay there for the rest of the semester, leveraging BU’s Learn from Anywhere (LfA) model to complete their coursework remotely.
These two scenarios are highly preferable because they reduce the chance of Thanksgiving travel spreading coronavirus within the bubble of the BU community, which, despite a higher prevalence of coronavirus cases lately, still had a coronavirus testing average of .14 percent over the last week.
But the remaining quarter of on-campus students indicated on the survey that they plan to travel home for Thanksgiving and then return back to campus. “Travel coupled with non-masked gatherings and intermixing of different households has the potential to put the coronavirus surge on overdrive and eventually cause states to engage in more restrictions,” Platt says. Those students will also be required to isolate upon returning and have three negative tests before they can resume normal life. “While we can’t forbid someone to leave and come back, we are making responsible choices available to students: Stay on campus for Thanksgiving. Or travel home and stay there,” she says.
“Our major focus right now is keeping the numbers down to allow students to successfully complete their studies this semester and then take a well deserved break over intersession,” Waters says.
This is a critical time for every individual to make the safest decision possible, Platt says: “Going into December and January, the public health experts are predicting we will see the highest-yet number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Our behavior—now—can influence what happens in the coming months.”
Gloria Waters has spearheaded teams of BU scientists in their development and deployment of a campus-wide COVID-19 testing program and mathematical modeling of community behavior. Judy Platt, chair of BU’s Medical Advisory Group, oversees clinical management and isolation of students and employees who test positive for coronavirus, and helps manage BU’s contact tracing efforts. They are co-chairs of BU’s Vaccine Preparedness Group, which is overseeing the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines allocated to BU by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.