College confident about COVID testing plan
“Returning college students and summer visitors from ‘red’ areas are only a health threat if you let your guard down and suffer ambivalence to precautions.”
— Middlebury Emergency Management Director Tom Hanley
MIDDLEBURY — As Middlebury College welcomes more than 2,000 students back to campus this month, criticism of its fall reopening plans has also mounted.
Students, faculty and local community members have all expressed concerns about the risk they believe the college is taking by reopening its campus in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
At the same time, college officials say they are taking unprecedented precautions to keep students and the broader community safe from a COVID-19 outbreak. And they are joined by others in asserting that a careful return of students to campus is better than the alternative for many young adults.
“At Middlebury we know residential education reduces inequities for students and supports their mental health,” Middlebury President Laurie Patton said in a statement released over the weekend. “The question for us was, could we create the safest possible environment to do so.”
(Read Patton’s full statement by clicking here.)
The college has set up a testing center in the Virtue Field House and taken other steps to make housing and classes safer for students, college employees and the public at large.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of people locally and farther afield criticizing the college’s work to make in-person education possible.
Political scientist Yascha Mount, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, singled out Middlebury College in an Aug. 8 piece in The Atlantic. He suggested that within weeks of opening, American colleges and universities would need to isolate larger and larger numbers of students and then shut down their campuses on short notice, “and students, many of them infected, will spread the virus all the way home and to their families.”
Addison County, he suggested, “has virtually vanquished COVID-19 … But (it) is home to Middlebury College, which, according to its website, hosts students from 49 states. When young people from coronavirus hot spots such as Georgia, Florida, and Texas arrive for class, Addison County’s infection rate will almost certainly grow.”
Locally, criticism of the college’s “Return to Campus” plan springs from fears that students will bring COVID-19 into Middlebury, that the college isn’t conducting enough testing, and that students can’t be trusted to follow public health guidelines.
An Aug. 13 letter in the Independent, signed by 60 members of the college and local communities, envisioned 18- to 22-year-olds “packed into dormitories” without enough self-control to follow the college’s public health guidelines, and faulted the college with a “failure to provide for ongoing weekly testing of everyone.”
This week one college professor alerted college officials (and cc’d the Independent) to a Facebook post from Pierre Vachon of Frog Alley Tattoo & Leatherworks that says students have tried to book appointments for piercings upon their arrival in Middlebury and were angry and verbally abusive when told he couldn’t pierce them because they are supposed to be quarantining. The professor said a colleague reported seeing four students without face masks walking back to campus carrying coffee they had just purchased off campus. He had also heard a rumor that a group of Middlebury students partied at a bar in Vergennes over this past weekend.
Meanwhile, an incident involving Middlebury town police show that not all reports were verified. Middlebury town police were called to what was described as a loud party at a Shannon Street home at 10:17 p.m. on this past Sunday, where reportedly some college students weren’t complying with the state’s social distancing mandates. That is how this story originally reported the incident. In an updated, more complete report from police received after this story was originally published, the officer said that MPD found five individuals in the living room drinking and listening to music, but the music could not be heard outside the house. The police report concludes, “Report was unfounded although the students agreed to turn the music down further as not to upset neighbors. Nothing further.”RED ZONES
Data journalist Benjy Renton is a rising senior at Middlebury College and an expert on the pandemic’s impacts on higher education. Earlier this month he posted to Twitter a map of the U.S. illustrating the travel patterns of college students heading toward New England for the fall semester. Thick yellow arcs lead to a convergence in the Northeast that blots out the map.
“From an analysis of five schools (Bates, Bowdoin, Connecticut and Middlebury colleges and Tufts University), it is clear how much of an ‘epidemiological shock’ students’ return to campus could bring,” Renton wrote. “Of the 12,348 students, 20% (2,443) live in states designated by the White House as in the ‘red zone.’”
A week later, James Finn, reporting in the Middlebury Campus newspaper, pointed out that “just 2% of students reside in the only ‘green zone’ that presently exists in the country — the Green Mountain State itself.”
But just because people are traveling from high-risk areas doesn’t mean they necessarily have the disease, Middlebury Director of Health Services Mark Peluso told the Independent.
He pointed to early testing results from Norwich University, which on the weekend of Aug. 8 welcomed 500 students to campus for the fall semester. Three of those students tested positive for COVID-19 and were immediately isolated. All three had traveled from “high-risk” pandemic areas, according to Peluso, who had spoken with Norwich officials.
Peluso finds Norwich’s low percentage of initial cases — 0.6% — “encouraging.”
“Our 14-day pre-arrival quarantine, direct travel to campus, day 0 and day 7 testing, room quarantine, campus quarantine, off-campus travel restrictions and no-visitor policy was designed to address students coming from areas with a high prevalence of COVID-19,” he said in a statement emailed to the Independent by Director of Media Relations Sarah Ray.
She said the college and its public health partners are working on a policy for sharing with the local community — and not just state officials — the number of positive COVID-19 test results. She added that it was important to protect the privacy of individual students.
“The college is developing a communications plan to share testing numbers and results, including cumulative COVID-19 positive cases,” Ray said. “Our goal is to keep the community prepared and informed while protecting the privacy of those who test positive.”
She noted that the Department of Health has ways to do contact tracing confidentially and to ensure privacy is protected.
Critics point out that schools similar to Middlebury are testing their students more often.
“I know testing is a big issue,” Peluso said. “Some (colleges) are testing every student — or even every student, faculty and staff member — twice a week,” he said. “I would say that if that is their plan, that’s great as long as testing holds up.”
On the other hand, “we’re doing what I believe is a hybrid model that has some testing in it to look for pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic spread, but we’re also doing it in a way that matches the prevalence in our community.”
Addison County has by far the lowest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 of any county hosting a school in Middlebury’s athletic conference, NESCAC. The vast majority of those colleges are located in counties with more than 1,000 confirmed cases, while as of Aug. 16 Addison County had only 76.
After the college conducts arrival and week-one testing on every single incoming student, it will employ what Peluso calls “targeted dynamic testing” of at least 750 students, faculty and staff per week. If COVID-19 prevalence rises locally, the college has the ability to increase its testing capacity right away, he said.
Why not just test everyone all the time?
“Because there’s a risk of false positive tests,” Peluso said. “If you do a mass screening, the likelihood of a positive test being truly positive is very low. In other words, the risk of a false positive is very high in a low-prevalence situation.”
False positives have adverse consequences, he said.
“For COVID, the adverse effect would be that once someone tests positive and (completes) their isolation — which is only 10 days if they don’t have symptoms — the (CDC) recommendation is to not test them again for 90 days. If tested again they’d probably still be positive, and then we’d have to isolate them all over again and then have their contacts quarantined for 14 days — again. And again and again and again if you keep testing these people.
“So what a lot of schools don’t tell you is that they’re not going to test people that have tested positive,” Peluso continued. “They’re going to waive testing for 90 days. So imagine: In a low-prevalence state, you test somebody and they’re positive, but it’s a false positive, and now they’re not going to be tested for 90 days. That person then gets exposed — that person is a super-spreader event waiting to happen.”
“Low prevalence,” is a tricky concept, however, as Director of Middlebury’s Global Health Program Pam Berembaum pointed out in Finn’s Middlebury Campus article. It’s not a static condition.
What does it take for a “low-prevalence” community to become a “high-prevalence” community?
“There is no standard definition of ‘low’ or ‘high’ prevalence,” Berembaum told the Independent in an email. “It is characterized with respect to scarcity of resources, health inequities, the extent of suffering, communicability, whether there is a treatment, and so forth. I would say that given how infectious COVID-19 is, and how dire the consequences are for at-risk individuals, there would be low tolerance for an increase in prevalence. We have seen many states roll back their reopening plans for this reason.
“An increase in prevalence might be tolerable if it is contained and does not exhaust existing resources,” Berembaum continued. “There are many measures to prevent, mitigate, and contain outbreaks of far more deadly pathogens, if resources are available. In any case, protecting the public’s health requires not only policies and resources, but also buy-in and personal responsibility on the part of community members.”
In his Aug. 7 bulletin, Middlebury Police Chief and Local Emergency Management Director Tom Hanley seemed somewhat calm about students coming back.
“Returning college students and summer visitors from ‘red’ areas are only a health threat if you let your guard down and suffer ambivalence to precautions,” he told local residents.
A week later, however, Hanley asked for help keeping our guard up; he asked townspeople to report suspicious college students to the police.
“While college internal rules are robust and can be very effective, they cannot be enforced if the administration is not aware of potential violations,” he wrote. “Until a formal process is in place, the police are asking you to call and report noise disturbances and gatherings where the governor’s orders on the mask requirement, social distancing, and gathering size are not being complied with. The police will respond for COVID compliance purposes.”
It should be noted that most law enforcement in Addison County and the rest of Vermont over the past several months have repeatedly expressed reluctance to pursue violations of town or state public safety ordinances committed by Vermont residents or out-of-state visitors.
“Both the town and college share the community’s concern over students arriving from ‘red’ and ‘orange’ areas and we are working with the college to ensure that safety rules put in place are enforced to mitigate the risk to the community,” Hanley concluded.
On Aug. 14, when he again extended Vermont’s State of Emergency, Gov. Phil Scott announced he would be giving municipalities “additional tools” to control college students, including lowering the limit on gathering size and setting curfews for bars and clubs.
“Looking at case growth in other states, and hearing from other governors about what they saw, it appears uncontrolled parties and crowds at bars and clubs are a big part of the problem,” Scott said in a statement. “So I believe giving our towns, especially the college towns, some additional mitigation measures to work with is the right thing to do.”
During a July 28 Middlebury selectboard meeting, Middlebury College Dean of Students Derek Doucet promised there would be swift punishment on campus for public safety infractions.
“The bar for removal from campus and/or suspension will be far lower than in a typical year, and I don’t say that lightly,” Doucet said. “The stakes are too high, and introducing elevated levels of risk to the community won’t be tolerated.”
Sanctions will be proportionate to the level of elevated risk a particular behavior has the potential to introduce to the community, Doucet said:
“We won’t wait for infection to result from a behavior to respond forcefully.”
According to Harvard Medical School epidemiologist Julia Marcus and Washington University in St. Louis psychiatrist Jessica Gold, a common narrative about the pandemic is evolving, based on an increasing number of coronavirus cases among young people that have been associated — rightly or wrongly — with bars and house parties: “Careless 20-somethings are ruining life for the rest of us.”
In their July 21 article in the Atlantic, “Colleges Are Getting Ready to Blame Their Students,” Marcus and Gold suggested that “relying on the self-control of young adults, rather than deploying the public-health infrastructure needed to control a disease that spreads easily among people who live, eat, study, and socialize together, is not a safe reopening strategy — and yelling at students for their dangerous behavior won’t help either.”
They pointed out that young people are at far greater risk of suffering from psychiatric disorders triggered or worsened by social isolation than they are from complications associated with the coronavirus.
Peluso agrees, which is one of the reasons he thinks college students should return to college, if it is safe to do so.
“The piece that rarely gets discussed is the impact on students that can’t return,” he said. “There’s some research being done about the impacts of isolation, particularly related to COVID, especially in young adults, who are at a stage of life where they want to learn and they’re looking at career opportunities. Social relationships are very important to them in that stage of development and students that attend colleges and universities have the expectation that they’re going to meet those needs. When those things are taken away, at best there’s demoralization; at worst it can spiral into depression or other mental health issues that will have a long-lasting effect on that individual. I think it’s not the only reason to bring people back — and certainly if we felt that the community was unsafe we would shut down — but understanding the impact on the entire community, including students, I think is important.”
Reach Christopher Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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