“We know that many BU students like to party on Halloween. But this is a very different year”
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.
Between October 21 and 27, Boston University reported 32 new positive coronavirus tests in students and 9 in faculty and staff.
With 50 students now in isolation with cases of coronavirus, Judy Platt says 14 of the recent cases were linked to one off-campus party that occurred over a week ago. “We’re not anywhere near our isolation capacity, but it is concerning to have this many students in isolation,” Platt says.
Aside from cases stemming from known gatherings, Platt says, the contact tracing team is also seeing secondary transmissions, where someone primarily contracts coronavirus from one of their contacts, then brings the virus home to their family or roommates or introduces it to someone else through socializing.
The sharp rise in cases at BU mirrors what’s happening around Boston and around the commonwealth of Massachusetts, as community transmission climbs. On Tuesday, October 27, Massachusetts recorded 1,260 new cases, a 70 percent increase in new daily cases over the last 14 days.
At BU, Gloria Waters says, compliance remains an area where the campus community needs to improve, especially students who live off campus and visit campus for classes or other reasons. Off-campus graduate students are doing a better job of completing their testing requirements than off-campus undergraduates, but neither group is achieving 90 percent and above compliance like faculty, staff, and on-campus undergraduate students have.
This week, BU began enforcing corrective action with employees who aren’t comply with the University’s COVID-19 testing and health screening requirements. There has also been a change in screening requirements for employees in Categories 1, 2, and 3, per the safety protocols. Those employees now must complete a daily health screening every weekday, whether they come to campus or not.
To further combat the compliance issue and increasing number of coronavirus cases in the Boston area, Waters says BU will increase the number of places on campus where security check the digital ID badges of students, faculty, and staff to ensure that they’re complying with the University’s mandatory coronavirus testing protocols and required daily attestation of symptoms.
Waters says BU is also planning to decrease the number of people that community members are allowed to gather with on or off campus—the limit is currently set to 25.
On October 27, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said the state’s contact tracing efforts have revealed that half of new cases can be attributed to informal, indoor gatherings where mask-wearing, social distancing, and other COVID-19 best practices are being ignored. (He also pointed a finger at youth hockey leagues causing an uptick in cases.) With Halloween coming, Baker reminded people that organized, outdoor trick-or-treating is far safer than attending indoor parties.
The message to steer clear of indoor parties is one that Platt and Waters are echoing, concerned that Halloween’s popularity with BU students will jeopardize the campus community’s health. (The hope this year is that the student-organized virtual Halloween party, hosted by comedian Hasan Minhaj, will be a big draw for students.)
“Halloween has typically been one of the biggest dates of the year for alcohol transports [to the hospital] from campus,” Platt says. “We know that many BU students like to party on Halloween. But this is a very different year, and there will be spread of the virus if people get together in large groups.”
She says that with the increasing number of cases at BU and the surrounding area, the same types of gatherings that might have occurred without issue over the summer may now become problematic. “As the virus levels rise at BU and around us, gatherings take on a higher level of risk,” she says.
Platt stresses that BU Healthway and their contact tracers understand that people need to socialize and interact—although she adds that gatherings or parties where “caution is thrown to the wind,” masks aren’t worn, and distancing isn’t practiced are perfect opportunities for viral spread. But even in small gatherings held with the best intentions to follow COVID-19 protocols, such as celebrating milestones like birthdays, the newly updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that repeated but short exposures—such as taking off a mask to quickly sip a drink or eat a piece of cake—can add up and all together can allow for viral transmission.
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.