Boston University Weekly COVID-19 Report: January 13 to 19

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. This is their first report of 2021, as spring semester is about to get underway.

With intersession over, Boston University’s coronavirus surveillance program is ramping its daily testing bandwidth back up to accommodate the return of students, faculty, and staff who are approved to live, work, or attend classes on campus during spring semester. In the last seven days-six of them dominated by reentry testing for students arriving back at BU-a total of 43 students, as well as 25 faculty and staff, have tested positive for coronavirus.

So far, given the high level of community transmission that’s happening across Massachusetts and the nation, the number of positive results is in line with expectations. The move-in process for students got underway on January 14 and will continue until January 25. BU is asking that anyone-student, faculty, or staff-who is approved to visit campus step up their coronavirus testing to fit an extra test, above their usual weekly cadence, into their schedule for the next few weeks.

“We’ve had some positives this week but nothing beyond what we would expect to see as people return after the break,” Judy Platt says. “Holiday travel and household transmission-those are the two common themes we’re seeing in the majority of positive cases. We know people were traveling over intersession, gathering with other households over the holidays, and that’s where we’re seeing that transmission occurred.”

She adds that, anecdotally, she’s been hearing more cases in which not just one person in a household gets sick, but the household gets sick and tests positive for coronavirus. Many of BU’s fully remote students and staff-designated as part of the University’s Category 4 testing group-took advantage of BU’s winter intersession offer: making testing available to fully remote students and staff to help reduce the region’s spread of coronavirus linked to holiday gatherings and travel.

Students who traveled in state or out of state to visit their hometowns over break have also been taking advantage of available testing sites. “We’ve seen an impressive number of outside test results reported to BU Student Health Services,” Platt says.

She says that she’s been pleased that students are doing what BU suggested: getting tested before they travel to Boston and reporting their results to BU. Students who test negative are then arriving on campus and jumping into BU’s testing protocols, while students who test positive are isolating at home until they are medically cleared to travel to campus. “People are heeding our advice,” she says.

Meanwhile, Gloria Waters is focused on making sure BU faculty and staff are ready to get spring semester underway. On Friday, BU began administering the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines to about 500 COVID-facing healthcare providers and support staff, in adherence with Massachusetts guidelines for prioritizing vaccinations amongst the University community. Since then, she says, she’s already started to field some concerning questions.

“One researcher asked me, do I still have to wear as much personal protective equipment [PPE] after I’ve been vaccinated?” Waters says. She says, adamantly, the answer to that question is yes. “The drumbeat this semester is going to be the message that-despite the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccines-you still have to wear your mask, you still have to adhere to BU’s testing cadence, and you still have to follow all the same public health protocols that we practiced in the fall semester.”

Why is that the case? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), even people who have been vaccinated need to wear masks and avoid close contact with others to help prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. The CDC states that it’s not yet known whether getting a COVID-19 vaccine will prevent someone from spreading the virus that causes COVID-19 to other people, even if they don’t get sick themselves.

“Until we have that data,” Platt says, “we need people to adhere to all COVID protocols-this may eventually change, but we are not there yet.”

Mask-wearing, social distancing, handwashing, and getting regularly tested are more important than ever following the news that a more infectious strain of SARS-CoV-2, first detected in the UK, has been identified in the Greater Boston community.

BU’s Clinical Testing Lab will be able to determine the presence of SARS-CoV-2 from nasal samples, regardless of what strain of the virus may be there, and Waters is working with the lab to determine if strain-specific genetic screening can be introduced into BU’s testing process, as well. “These new strains are more contagious, so it would be important for us to know if we have those strains within our community-we might expect more transmission in that case,” she says. By increasing testing frequency to an extra test per week, BU students, faculty, and staff can help identify any positive cases and make sure those people are isolated and treated as soon as possible.

Waters adds that the more contagious strains are not thought to cause more serious disease, but by developing a process to genetically screen positive samples, BU’s Clinical Testing Lab could gather data on the prevalence of strains within BU’s community. That could ultimately contribute to valuable public health data about how infectious and potent each strain is. BU’s community has so far been fortunate in that, to the knowledge of Platt, Waters, and BU’s Medical Advisory Group, no one from BU has died or been hospitalized with serious illness caused by the coronavirus since the start of BU’s coronavirus surveillance program in July 2020.

Thursday, the last of the first 500 vaccine doses allocated to BU by Boston Medical Center-BU’s teaching hospital-and the state of Massachusetts are expected to be administered to eligible BU staffers. “It’s really exciting; it’s been going really well,” Platt says. Since Friday, BU’s vaccine clinic at FitRec has been completing about 200 appointment-only COVID vaccinations per day. “We’ve been sending vaccine invitations out to people who fall into the state’s Phase 1A group for vaccine prioritization, and if they decline, then we are moving on to the next-highest priority group so that we make sure we are using up every single dose allocated to us.”

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, a member of BU’s Medical Advisory Group, oversees clinical management and isolation of students 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.

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