Super Bowl get-togethers “a big concern,” more vaccines arrive at BU, and why BU hopes to begin sequencing positive COVID tests for virus variants
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 January 27 and February 2, 91 Boston University students and 23 faculty and staff tested positive for coronavirus, an elevated number of cases that still reflects reentry testing from campus move-in and the resumption of classes for spring semester.
“We knew travel back to campus would take about two weeks to play out,” says Judy Platt. “We’re where we expected to be.” In the last few days, the number of new cases has begun to dip slightly, and although regionally and nationally COVID-19 case counts are slowly declining, Platt cautions that upcoming events risk an explosion of cases.
“We have the Super Bowl coming up [on Sunday, February 7] and then we have Presidents Day weekend soon after,” Platt says. “It’s a big concern that people will get together—it would be really unfortunate to see another set of increases, like we consistently saw after holiday weekends during the fall 2020 semester. This trajectory, it’s ours to write based on our behaviors.”
Platt knows it’s a tough moment to be in. “It’s a hard time for everyone—there’s low morale, it’s the dead of winter, vaccines are going out slowly, and there’s variants of the virus coming onto the scene,” she says.
On Tuesday, BU received 400 new doses of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH), a number allocated by the state to cover the segment of BU’s community that fits within its Phase 1F umbrella for vaccine prioritization. Members of the Phase 1F group will be able to receive their first doses as early as this week, through invitation-only appointments to BU’s COVID vaccine clinic at the FitRec Center.
“We’ve given over 500 vaccinations on the Charles River Campus already,” Platt says. Boston Medical Center, BU’s teaching hospital, has also vaccinated a significant number of BU healthcare providers, many of whom are based on the Medical Campus. “This week, we’re looking forward to delivering 400 more doses.”
Each week, sometime between Monday and Wednesday, the hope is that BU will continue to receive new shipments of COVID vaccines from the Massachusetts DPH, dependent on the state’s supply of vaccines. A BU Healthway survey sent out earlier this week will help the University make sure that it can request and receive the correct number of doses for the next vaccine group: Phase 2A.
“We can request doses from the state based on a person’s job function, age, and any comorbidities that they have, but in order to know who is eligible due to comorbidities, we need everyone to fill out the survey,” Platt says. To keep up with the state’s timeline for allocating doses, those responses are needed by Friday, February 5.
Meanwhile, BU is working through a plan to incorporate variant detection into its University-wide coronavirus testing program. “We’ve secured the funds to do it, and we’re very interested in making it happen,” says Gloria Waters. “We’ll need to work with [Massachusetts DPH] to see how we might coordinate with state epidemiologists,” who would likely be interested in tracking the presence of coronavirus variants locally and regionally.
BU’s Clinical Testing Lab is already capable of detecting the presence of the coronavirus, regardless of what variant may be there, because all variants still share the major components of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 infections. But adding the advanced step of sequencing positive test results, which would reveal the precise genetic sequence of the virus in a sample, would give BU’s Medical Advisory Group—as well as Boston and Massachusetts public health officials—more detailed information about how the virus is spreading through the community.
“Up until this point, variants seem to have increased transmissibility, but we don’t yet have enough information to know if public health protocols, such as guidelines for quarantine, isolation, etc., need to be updated based on the evolving virus,” says Platt. “We are carrying out evidence-based research on this virus as we live through the pandemic.”
Waters says that BU still has many details to work through before genetic sequencing of virus variants becomes baked into their testing process. “You’ve got to have access to libraries of all the different variant sequences to compare samples to—we’re at the very beginning states of figuring out how to do this,” she says.
Over the spring and summer of 2020, Waters worked with a team of BU scientists who conceptualized, developed, and implemented a system for screening members of the University community for coronavirus, setting up a dedicated space now known as the BU Clinical Testing Lab to get the job done. Those efforts were aided by a computer simulation of the campus community network and by the establishment of a contact tracing team, which tracks down individuals who test positive for coronavirus and assists in getting their close contacts into quarantine.
Knowing whether more infectious variants of the coronavirus are circulating among BU students, faculty, or staff could encourage people to be even more vigilant in adhering to BU’s community health protocols, Waters says. “If we all know there are more infectious, or more dangerous, variants in our community, we’re all going to be more careful,” she says. The news that several new variants have infiltrated Boston, New York, and other US cities “is making people think more about, ‘Is my mask good enough, or should I be wearing two masks?’”
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.