Boston University Weekly COVID-19 Report: November 18 to 23

Now that Boston University is publishing 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, are providing a weekly update on the overall health of the BU community.

Approaching Thanksgiving, Boston University’s Clinical Testing Lab has been busier than ever as students have sought out testing prior to the holiday. “Monday last week was the highest number of tests we ever had,” Gloria Waters says. 5,819 tests were processed that day.

That might indicate students are either planning to leave campus for Thanksgiving and stay home to learn remotely for the rest of the semester, or go home for Thanksgiving and come back to Boston to finish classes. From a public health perspective, BU, city of Boston, and Massachusetts officials have all made it very clear what their preference is: No travel at all is preferred, but students who are going home for Thanksgiving should not return to Boston.

“We had a student flying home and another student driving home, and they had both submitted samples to our lab for testing, but had left Boston before getting their results,” Judy Platt says. “In both of these cases, their results were positive. BU Healthway was calling these students as they were reaching their destinations and saying, you’ve tested positive for coronavirus. We may see more of that in the coming week.”

Between November 17* and 23, 27 BU students tested positive for coronavirus, as well as 11 faculty and staff. BU’s Clinical Testing Lab has recently expanded its capacity from being able to run 6,000 tests a day to up to 8,000 to accommodate an anticipated increase in testing demand.

The boost in testing capacity will accommodate testing of Category 4 students who live near BU but do all their coursework online. Since these students aren’t supposed to come to campus for any reason, they are normally not part of BU’s rigorous COVID-19 testing program, which for students who come to campus for any reason requires that undergraduates be tested twice per week and graduates be tested once per week.

Last week, however, Governor Charlie Baker implored that Massachusetts universities with COVID-19 testing capabilities offer testing to all their students-including in-person, hybrid, and totally remote learners-who plan to travel to their hometown for Thanksgiving.

“We’ve got a lot of Category 4 students-about 4,000 who live very close to BU-and we want to make sure there are an ample number of slots for them to get tested,” Waters says.

For that reason, BU has also reminded its Category 4 employees who are working fully remotely that they, unlike students who plan to travel out of the area, are not eligible for COVID-19 testing. “People think it’s about money, but it’s about the fact that we are very concerned about the supply chain,” which has come under additional strain due to the dramatic increase in testing that has been needed across the country as COVID-19 cases have surged, Waters says. Swab shipments and other supplies come in to BU every few weeks, Waters says, and already some of those shipments have been delayed. BU has had to develop backup plans to make sure they have everything they need to continue testing the BU community.

Waters adds that the BU Clinical Testing Lab is already running at all-out capacity, daily from 7 am to 11 pm. “It’s not that we don’t want to accommodate our remote employees and want them to be safe, but we can’t do it all given the demands on our lab,” Waters says. “We’re doing what we can to comply with the governor’s order to allow all students to test.”

Waters says testing Category 4 students is especially important, both before they leave for Thanksgiving and, if they return to Boston, when they arrive back in the area, because despite doing all of their coursework remotely they still mingle frequently with on-campus peers and friends. “They are much more a part of our on-campus community than people working remotely,” she says.

So far, through a survey administered by the Dean of Students office, about half of BU’s students have indicated they will stay in Boston for Thanksgiving, and a quarter say they plan to travel to their hometown and finish the semester remotely. But another quarter of those surveyed said they plan to travel home and return to their on-campus or off-campus housing in Boston, by far the worst option for the pandemic’s sake.

“I feel like this is the calm before the storm,” Platt says. “One trend we’ve been really fortunate to see up to this point is that most people who test positive have been able to identify the close contact they likely became infected from. But over the weekend, for the first time, a majority of the people with positive results could not pinpoint how they had been exposed.”

Since they were caught off guard by their positive results, they had not been quarantining and could have infected additional people while their test results were pending.

“Know your bubble,” Platt says. “My biggest concern about Thanksgiving is the mixing of households. It will become increasingly challenging to pinpoint who has been infected and from where.”

Massachusetts currently has in place a travel order that requires anyone entering the state, or returning to the state from another one, to quarantine for 14 days or produce a negative COVID-19 test result that has been administered up to 72 hours prior to entering Massachusetts. Visitors and residents coming into the state from elsewhere must quarantine until they receive a negative test result. BU will require students traveling back to Boston after Thanksgiving to stay in place at their residence until they have received three negative COVID-19 test results from BU’s Clinical Testing Lab.

Ultimately how many students decide to leave Boston for the holiday and then return will be revealed through coronavirus testing when they return. “Will there be a surge of people coming into the testing sites on Monday?” Waters says. “We’re looking at our lab capacity and our supplies in case that happens.”

One last piece of advice before making your final travel arrangements and social plans for Turkey Day? “Don’t burst your bubble,” Waters says.

*This week’s BU COVID-19 report is publishing a day early due to the Thanksgiving holiday. Accordingly, November 17 is being counted in this week’s testing numbers as the first day of the last seven-day stretch. November 17 was also included in last week’s report as the final day of last week’s seven-day stretch.

Gloria Waters spearheaded teams of BU scientists in their development and deployment of a campus-wide COVID-19 testing program and chairs the Community Health Oversight Group, which scrutinizes BU’s testing data each day. 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.

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