Boston University Weekly COVID-19 Report: October 7 to 13

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, will provide a weekly update on the overall health of the BU community.

Despite the number of positive coronavirus tests remaining relatively low this past week, Boston University leaders are still making moves to ensure the community keeps adhering to all safety guidelines.

“Things are only really good right now because people are complying,” Gloria Waters says. “That needs to continue.”

From October 7 to 13, four students, and six faculty and staff, tested positive for coronavirus.

To keep vigilance up, BU researchers working inside on-campus labs may soon see some surprise visitors. Waters says BU’s Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) team will begin conducting unannounced lab walk-throughs to see if all researchers are adhering to the coronavirus precautions outlined by the University and by lab-specific plans, submitted by principal investigators (PIs) and lab managers, for safely resuming in-person research.

Should the EHS team discover that researchers are violating the precautions, the consequences could be serious, depending on the violation. “It could be all the way up to having to close the lab down,” Waters says. “Labs have to follow their protocols.”

Waters says PIs will soon be asked to review their lab’s specific ramp-up plan to assess whether revisions are needed and to make sure that each member of their team is complying with the plan.

In general, Waters says BU faculty and staff are getting better and better at the routine of being screened for the coronavirus at one of the University’s sampling sites each week. Their overall compliance is reaching 90 percent and above, approaching BU’s target of 95 percent compliance. “We would like to have 100 percent compliance, but knowing that sometimes things happen and people are on vacation, 95 percent is our target,” Waters says.

Graduate students (who mostly live off campus) and undergraduates living on campus are also doing a great job complying with their required testing schedules, Judy Platt says, with their compliance numbers consistently around 90 percent. But undergraduate students who live off campus? Not so much.

The sampling sites have long hours, there’s a variety of locations, and it’s easy to sign up for an appointment. Our hope is that students will stick to the cadence.

“The compliance numbers for off-campus undergrads are frequently lower than on-campus undergrads,” Platt says. While on- and off-campus undergraduates who visit campus for any reason are expected to be tested twice per week, she says the incentives for on-campus students to complete their testing-which grants them access to dining halls and prevents them from losing internet access-are more compelling, since off-campus students might have their own kitchens and Wi-Fi.

“Maybe it’s easier for students who live on campus to get tested, but we’re trying to make testing as easy as possible,” Platt says. “The sampling sites have long hours, there’s a variety of locations, and it’s easy to sign up for an appointment. Our hope is that students will stick to the cadence.”

She also says the University is taking a close look at BU’s four testing categories to make sure students are properly assigned to the right group for testing frequency. Platt and Waters share the concern that off-campus undergraduates who are studying remotely, but who live nearby to campus, might still be socializing and interacting with friends and classmates on campus.

Off-campus students may be more likely to encounter people from surrounding neighborhoods who are not part of a coronavirus surveillance program. “With Boston’s county in the red zone [for coronavirus testing positivity], we’re very mindful that community transmission is going up,” Platt says. “It’s a barometer that tells us the number of cases is rising in our area.”

Platt stresses the importance that off-campus undergraduates continue to adhere to their testing schedules and make sure to update their Learn from Anywhere (LfA) status if they have switched the way they are accessing classes, remotely or in person. It’s critical that anyone living off campus who has indicated they are learning remotely does not come to campus for any other reason without updating their LfA status to reflect any campus visits. She also says that the importance of continuing to wear facial coverings can’t be overstated.

“It’s really important to keep your mask on,” Platt says. “Not that you shouldn’t continue physical distancing and hand hygiene. But properly worn and fitted masks, while they don’t eliminate the risk of viral transmission, really do decrease those chances.”

Platt also hopes that, despite the chill of October’s cooler weather, people continue to look for ways to do their socializing responsibly outdoors. “More time indoors raises the concern for viral transmission,” she says.

Over this past three-day weekend, Waters and Platt say they noticed a significant decline in the number of people who came in for sampling. They suspect it may be that people were traveling, and they’re now beginning to look ahead to Thanksgiving to plan for how the holiday may disrupt the normal testing cadence of the BU community.

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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