Boston University publishes its COVID-19 testing data on a public-facing dashboard. With students returning to campus for the fall semester, Judy Platt, director of BU Student Health Services, provides The Brink with an update on the overall health of the BU community.
Since the start of Boston University’s Move-In on August 25, in advance of classes starting September 2, BU has screened almost 24,000 people for coronavirus infections in the last week, averaging 4,000 to 5,000 tests per day. And, no surprise, there were some positive cases.
“Students are returning to BU from multiple states, multiple countries,” Judy Platt says.
Between August 24 and 30, BU’s Clinical Testing Lab identified 41 cases of COVID infections in students, and 9 among faculty and staff. Among BU students, an additional 30 cases of COVID infections were identified through external testing services students used before traveling to campus.
Those students, who reported positive external testing results to BU Healthway, are now isolating at home until they are no longer contagious and it’s safe for them to arrive at BU. Platt says that information is somewhat comforting, since it shows BU students took the appropriate precautions to protect themselves and the people around them.
“We don’t want to see people becoming complacent just because they are vaccinated,” Platt says.
The Pfizer and Moderna mRNA-based vaccines as well as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine impart significant protection against moderate to severe infections, hospitalizations, and death, Platt says. As of last week, in Massachusetts only .003 percent of fully vaccinated individuals have been hospitalized with COVID infections.
“The vaccines are achieving the main focus of what we want them to do: preventing severe illness,” Platt says.
But no vaccine is perfect, she adds, and many other types of COVID vaccines [used in other countries] provide lower levels of protection than those approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or authorized by the agency for emergency use. Given how contagious the Delta variant is, Platt isn’t too surprised to see breakthrough cases. Nearly 90 percent of recent COVID cases among members of the BU community have been in fully vaccinated individuals, according to statistics Platt shared with The Brink. And almost 70 percent of cases are symptomatic.
Last fall semester, well before the Delta variant became the predominant strain on BU’s campus and across the United States, Platt says, the majority of new COVID cases that BU identified were asymptomatic. Delta, however, is becoming notorious for its infectiousness and its likelihood that infected individuals will feel the symptoms.
“Given the number of breakthrough infections, don’t take a new symptom lightly. Indicate any symptoms on your daily symptom attestation, which will allow you to get expedited testing through BU’s Health Services Annex,” Platt says. Symptomatic COVID tests, processed individually, are prioritized over BU’s routine asymptomatic screening, which are processed through pool tests.
“We are catching a good number of cases right now through our campus reentry testing process,” Platt says. “So far, 75 percent of new positive test results in students have been identified within 10 days of an individual arriving at BU.”
This semester, students are getting screened once a week, a step-down from the twice weekly testing required of all undergraduate students during the 2020–2021 academic year. So far, 93 percent of the BU community is fully vaccinated, Platt says, and she expects the vaccination rate to rise even higher as stragglers fall into compliance with BU’s vaccine mandate.
Every positive test result identified by BU’s Clinical Testing Lab is investigated by the BU Healthway team, which includes contact tracing as well as variant sequencing performed through BU’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL). At the NEIDL, minuscule genetic changes that occur each time the virus is passed from person to person can be scrutinized, helping BU’s Healthway team identify potential clusters and determine which variants are present among BU’s community.
Platt says the variant sequencing process reveals that the vast majority of new COVID cases detected at BU this summer were introduced through external sources, rather than spreading from on-campus clusters. “We continue to see that unmasked interactions in households cause spread,” she says, as well as travel and other unmasked social events.
The variant sequencing process is intensive and takes about two weeks, so over the coming days and weeks Platt will be watching that molecular data especially closely to see if it reveals any on-campus clusters related to Move-In or other activities. She is keeping a close eye on campus events and gatherings and says so far, there is no evidence of viral transmission occurring at any BU-sponsored event.
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. She is cochair 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.