Boston University COVID-19 Report: February 1
With campus positivity rates still falling, conversations start on how protocols could eventually dial back; unobserved testing coming for students
Boston University publishes its COVID-19 testing data on a public-facing dashboard. With the spring semester underway, Gloria Waters, BU vice president and associate provost for research, and Judy Platt, BU chief health officer and executive director of Student Health Services, provide The Brink with updates on the overall health of the BU community.
Between January 24 and 30, 2.61 percent of tested Boston University students were positive for COVID; 1.71 percent of tested staff members and 0.88 percent of tested faculty members were also positive. According to BU’s COVID-19 dashboard, 99.6 percent of students, 98.6 percent of faculty, and 95.1 percent of staff are vaccine-compliant. For those who haven’t yet received their booster shot and uploaded the documentation, there are only a couple of days left to act: BU’s deadline for compliance is February 4.
The Brink put Gloria Waters and Judy Platt on the spot to talk about current case trends on campus, a student protest calling for the University to suspend in-person classes, and who decides when current mandates can end.
with Gloria Waters and Judy Platt
The Brink: Since we spoke last week, what new trends are you seeing in terms of cases and infections on campus? Is there anything that’s not reflected in the numbers?
Judy Platt: The weekly percent positivity is important to highlight and the overall BU seven-day test positivity is well under 2 percent, which is really a substantial decrease to what we experienced just a few weeks ago. The piece that isn’t reflected in the numbers is the severity of the infections that people are experiencing. We’re counting cases, because cases are what we’ve always counted, and cases are easy to count, but—at least from what we’ve heard—we’re not seeing severe illness in our community members who are vaccinated and boosted. We are certainly seeing cases, but we’re not seeing that same level of disease severity, which you can’t see in the dashboard.
The Brink: This question was posted by a graduate student on our last report: “Is there an objective endpoint to any of the existing mandates? For example, is there some guideline in place saying, ‘if the campus is under X% positivity for Y period of time, the mask mandate is dropped?’ Same for the vaccination mandate. Or is it just the subjective feeling of themselves and whoever else is in charge of making these decisions?”
Platt: There’s not one single metric that we use to make our decisions by. Certainly, we look at the number of the cases, the percent positivity; we look at the capacity of our isolation and quarantine housing, we look at transmission dynamics on campus. Even though we are not doing the same level of contact tracing on campus that we did previously, we have targeted case investigation efforts, we have sequencing for cases that we’re particularly concerned about, so we can see: how is transmission occurring on campus and where does the majority of transmission come from? Then we also look at what are the most effective preventative measures. Even if we get to a certain percent positivity in the number of cases, we don’t want to lose sight of certain preventative measures that have been important to members of our community. It really is a number of measures that we consider as we keep protocols in place. Not wanting to move too quickly, but [we’re] continuing to follow the data that we’ve looked at—as well as data from the city, the state, nationally—to be able to understand where the pandemic is evolving to and how we want to evolve with it.
The Brink: Who’s making those decisions and do you think that work is transparent enough?
Gloria Waters: There is the Community Health Oversight Group, which really has representation from leadership from the major areas of the University, from HR to Housing. There’s the Medical Advisory Group—which Judy leads, and includes a number of healthcare providers—which advises us from the medical perspective. Both of those groups make recommendations to University leadership. Judy and I are in constant communication with the leadership about what the protocols are and how they should be evolving. It’s not our expectation that we’re going to be doing testing forever. And we are currently having conversations about how exactly we’re going to be rolling that back over the course of the next six months.
Platt: We are actively looking at how we can evolve all of our protocols—again, with the goal of reducing obvious places where transmission can occur, while always keeping in sight the needs of our community and the ways in which the pandemic has really taken such a toll. We will not have mask mandates and regular testing in place forever.
Waters: Had Omicron not come along, we were in a pretty good place. We were starting to have these conversations, which then got put to the side. Now we’re picking them up again as the case counts go down, boosters are required, and treatments become more available. Unless there’s another surprise or another variant, if things continue to go in the direction they’re going—which is really a positive one, with cases going down and no serious illness—we’ll continue to think really actively about how we’re going to roll all of this back.
We evolved the testing protocol for faculty and staff, so it’s unobserved testing, and we just did that on the Medical Campus—that seems to be going exceptionally well—and the plan is that by next week, we’ll be starting to do that for students also, so it’ll be a lot more convenient for people. [Healthway will send a letter to students soon with all the details on unobserved testing.] That’s part of the evolution to having this be less burdensome and show that we trust people to just do this. We also know that students are experiencing some delays when everyone tries to book at the same time on Mondays. We encourage students to book in advance and we’re working on improving our systems to help with this.
The Brink: On the flip side, a group from the School of Social Work recently staged a walkout and called for the University to switch to remote learning until BU’s COVID-19 positivity rate is one percent or less. Are you listening to them?
Waters: That was an important part of the discussion at the Community Health Oversight Group today. It’s a fine line. We’re trying to hear all of the different voices, which are not always necessarily aligned in terms of what they think we should be doing. We’re trying to walk that fine line between making sure that we’re responsive to the people who are very concerned, but at the same time listening to the people who are thinking it’s time to start rolling these things back.
The Brink: According to the dashboard, 5 percent of staff aren’t yet vaccine-compliant. They still have a couple of days to get there, but is the University going to stick to its promise to place them on unpaid leave if they don’t?
Platt: BU has been very inclusive about the people who were included in the vaccine mandate, so that we didn’t miss anyone who was regularly coming to campus. But with BU being such a large place, there are some individuals who may have never been on campus or only come to campus once who are part of this collection of individuals that we’ve put into our compliance protocols. That person might not even be here again: someone who came on campus to teach a few classes, we may have put them in our protocols, they then leave to never come back, but it’s harder to remove them. We’re very happy with the compliance for people who are regularly on campus now.
The Brink: Any concerns with current COVID trends on campus?
Platt: We know that last year there was that initial increase in cases as individuals came back onto campus after Intersession, then we settled down, and then at the end of January, late February, we started to have a slight increase in cases. We know that the social activities of individuals are important predictors of when we’ll see cases, so when there are holidays, like Lunar New Year, or events—rushing for Greek life often happens in the spring semester and a number of universities experienced an increase in cases because of that last year—people are socially in situations where there’s more spread.
Have more COVID questions? Check out BU Today’s guide to campus life during COVID and the Back2BU website. They’ve got all the details on BU’s masking, testing, vaccination, quarantine, and isolation policies.