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College officials unfazed by COVID spike

“Our (Middlebury College) students are continuing to report mild or no symptoms, which is what we would expect in our highly vaccinated community.”
— Sarah Ray

This article was updated on March 10.

MIDDLEBURY — Roughly 14% of Middlebury College students have tested positive for COVID-19 since arriving for the spring semester last month, but the cases have not been severe or persistent enough to warrant a change in campus policies, officials said.

Middlebury currently has 2,626 residential students and has logged 383 cases, including a few employees, since spring semester testing began on Feb. 7, according to the college’s COVID-19 Reporting Dashboard.

But numbers like that don’t mean what they used to.

“While the case counts certainly are higher than what we have been accustomed to during the pandemic, the numbers are not our greatest concern,” said Director of Media Relations Sarah Ray in a March 4 email to the Independent. “We continue to monitor for case severity, and our students are continuing to report mild or no symptoms, which is what we would expect in our highly vaccinated community.”

Ninety-nine percent of students and 98% of employees are vaccinated at Middlebury.

The spike on campus coincides with a steady decline in cases statewide and around the country, which has prompted a reconsideration of public health guidance such as mask-wearing in schools.

Why is it spiking at Middlebury College now?

Because “the omicron variant is still highly contagious,” college officials said.

But it’s milder and it’s resolving more quickly, in most cases, they added.

Indeed, while the college reported 216 active cases on Friday, and 72 new cases over the next four days, there were only 135 active cases on campus as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the dashboard.

“We are hearing from some students that they do not think they had symptoms but upon reflection they had very mild symptoms within days of their positive result,” Ray said. “This is more and more common with omicron, which presents as a mild cold for most who are vaccinated.”

Middlebury College does not release data on case severity, “due to privacy concerns,” Ray said.

Students who test positive are required to isolate for five days, in accordance with CDC guidelines.

The college offers designated isolation housing for those who need it, and some students are allowed to recover at home.

“Many choose to stay in their dorms,” Ray said.

As Middlebury College’s case counts have spiked, so have those in Addison County, which recorded 325 cases in the past two weeks. How much of the former accounts for the latter is challenging to sort out, however.

“The Vermont Department of Health has said that its case counts and percent positivity rates are now considered less accurate due to individuals in communities using home antigen tests and not necessarily reporting positive or negative test results,” Ray said.

Middlebury tests its students weekly and those students have also been reporting home antigen test results — all of which get reported to the DOH.

But the collection and reporting timelines are different.

“It’s important to note that students who test positive may be out of isolation in a few days if their symptoms started prior to a PCR test or if they had no symptoms,” Ray said. “This is one reason we are deploying antigen tests, so that individuals receive their results more quickly. This creates challenges in reporting active cases and correlating them to test results.”

Consequently, “it is not accurate or appropriate to compare our case counts with (those reported by the DOH),” Ray said.

Middlebury maintains a four-tiered color-coded COVID alert system that ranges from green to red. The default status while students are in residence is yellow, or “Moderate: COVID-19 Precautions in Place.”

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, the campus status was orange, or “High Alert: Additional Precautions Needed.”

To see the last campus COVID-19 announcements visit middlebury.edu/office/covid-19-updates/announcements.

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