Several people at BU tested positive for COVID despite getting first vaccine dose: “Do not get a false sense of security” because of vaccine rollout
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.
In the last week, 94 students and 10 faculty and staff have tested positive for coronavirus. “We are really seeing a decrease in employee positives—student positives are making up the largest percentage of new cases at BU,” says Judy Platt. Notably, however, a few people who recently tested positive had also recently received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine.
So far, most people vaccinated at BU have been healthcare providers and COVID-facing support staff. A small number of those individuals have gone on to test positive for coronavirus, despite having recently received their first dose of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. “That doesn’t indicate a vaccine failure—no one expected it to prevent illness one week after the first dose,” Platt says. “The highest efficacy for immunity is not reached until two weeks have passed after the second dose.”
Gloria Waters is worried that the arrival of vaccines is lulling people into complacency and they are relaxing on protocols. “I’ve heard that physician-scientists who have been vaccinated are now wondering if they still need to wear masks in the lab, if they can start increasing the density of people working in their labs,” Waters says. “The answer is no. There are no exceptions to the protocols for people who have been vaccinated. We’re looking very closely at labs.”
Since immunity takes weeks to build up even after the second dose is received, and because there are no long-term data yet on how long immunity can last and whether or not people with immunity can still transmit the virus to others—it’s critical that everyone continue to be cautious.
“We’ve said that this semester will look the same, in terms of behavior and protocols, as last semester did,” Platt says. “At this point, we expect summer will look similar, as well. We’re not envisioning any relaxing of our public health protocols until we have true herd immunity.”
At BU, Phase 2 of vaccinations is now underway, in line with the state’s vaccine prioritization and distribution plan. BU received 200 more doses of the Moderna vaccine, which are being offered to individuals in the BU community who meet the criteria of being 75 years of age or older.
Platt says the spread of the virus has so far been manageable at BU, in large part due to contact tracing efforts. “Since November”—the start of the holiday season and colder temperatures forcing people indoors more—“we’ve seen greater numbers of people identified as close contacts of people who go on to test positive,” she says.
Overall, approximately 15 percent of close contacts identified by BU’s contact tracing team will eventually test positive for coronavirus during their quarantine period. “That tells us we are getting the right people into quarantine,” Platt says.
Contact tracing reveals that the virus continues to spread in familiar ways. “Gatherings, households mixing, people eating and drinking without masks—that’s the recipe for spread,” Platt says. “Non–University sponsored gatherings with larger groups of students are particularly risky.”
Yet the number of students testing positive is, in many ways, not surprising. In tandem with the Boston area, as well as the state of Massachusetts, the number of new cases per day is trending downward. And, as Platt says, inside their homes, “people do have to have a place to take off their mask.”
But whenever spending time in public or with people from another household, Platt says, it’s important to keep adhering to all health protocols: “Do not get a false sense of security. You have to ask yourself, are you changing your behavior based on receiving the first dose—or knowing someone who has?”
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.