The following Q&A with Director of University Health Services Dr. Douglas Comeau and Biology Professor and Department Chair Welkin Johnson provides answers to recent questions regarding Boston College’s COVID-19 testing program.
Q. Would you address the concerns that have been raised both on and off campus regarding the spike in positive COVID-19 cases this past week?
A. A total of 67 Boston College undergraduate students tested positive last week. Most of these positives are directly related to off-campus gatherings where students did not wear masks and practice physical distancing. Through contact tracing, we quickly identified close contacts and brought them in for testing. Most of the close contacts have tested positive, which accounted for the rise in cases. The increase serves as a critical reminder of the importance of following the health guidelines that we have consistently promoted, which include washing hands, wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings, and practicing physical distancing.
Q. Does last week’s increase represent an outbreak?
A. No. While any increase in positive cases is cause for concern, we believe that last week’s rise is attributable to a few specific social gatherings where masks were not worn and physical distancing was not maintained. Our aggressive contact tracing protocols identified individuals who were affected, and enabled us to quickly isolate them. We are currently experiencing a downward trend, from a high of 22 positive cases on Tuesday, September 8, to a low of eight cases on Friday, September 11. We believe we can continue to contain the increases we experienced last week and have a successful semester, provided that all of us do our part.
Q. How is the health of those who have tested positive?
A. All of the affected students have had mild symptoms or been asymptomatic. None has been hospitalized, and 22 have recovered and returned to normal activities.
Q. What is Boston College’s COVID-19 testing strategy for the BC community?
A. Boston College tested all students, faculty, and staff who intend to be on campus at any time this fall semester between August 16 and September 1. Since testing began, the University has conducted 25,084 tests with a total of 104 positive cases. That represents a positivity rate of 0.41, which remains below the average in Massachusetts and the City of Boston.
In addition, University Health Services continues to conduct symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for members of the BC community. Daily symptomatic testing takes place in a lab on campus and through The Broad Institute. Students who are tested wait in the Cabaret Room in Vanderslice Hall until their results are received. If they test positive, they are immediately placed in isolation for 10 days, with the last three days being symptom free. The asymptomatic surveillance testing, the vast majority of which is targeted, takes place Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in the MAC courts in the Margot Connell Recreation Center. This past week, we conducted a total of 2,954 tests. We expect to conduct a similar or higher number of tests this week, and are committed to adjusting our testing capacity throughout the semester as needed.
Q. Describe the University’s contact tracing strategy.
A. In addition to our symptomatic and asymptomatic testing, Boston College quickly tests all students who are identified as close contacts of individuals who tested positive for COVID-19. They are immediately quarantined for 14 days, and those testing positive are placed in isolation. This strategy of extensive contact tracing and rapid testing has allowed us to catch these positive cases in the earliest stages of infection (of the 104 positive cases, 74 were identified by contact tracing). It also allows us to target for asymptomatic testing those residence halls and off-campus apartments where cases have been identified. There will be increases in positive cases at times, as occurred last week, but we believe our strategy will help us to deal effectively with COVID-19 on campus.
Q. When would individuals be contacted by a contact tracer?
A. Contact tracers–experienced health care professionals and individuals trained through a program offered by Johns Hopkins University–will contact by phone any student, faculty, or staff member who is identified as a close contact from a positive trace.
Q. What is the quarantine/isolation strategy for students living on and off campus?
A. Students living on campus who test positive are immediately isolated for 10 days in University isolation housing. Currently, students are isolating in the Hotel Boston where they are assisted by staff from Residential Life and University Health Services, and have food brought to them daily by BC Dining Services. The University plans to use additional space at Pine Manor College, if needed. Students living off campus quarantine and isolate in their off-campus apartments. Like any other Boston or Newton resident, they are considered part of a family unit, and the positive patients will isolate in their bedroom, as they would if they lived at home with their parents/guardians. Other students in the apartment are immediately quarantined in place and retested, if deemed appropriate by contact tracers. Staff from University Health Services will monitor the students during their quarantine and isolation.
Q. How does the University inform the community of positive tests?
A. The University currently conducts surveillance testing Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and reports testing results via the Reopening BC website every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
Q. Will faculty be notified if students in their class test positive?
A. Faculty members identified as close contacts of a student testing positive for COVID-19 will be contacted, as per standard contact tracing protocol. However, if a student in a class tests positive, and the faculty member is not deemed a close contact, they will not automatically be contacted due to patient privacy regulations. Nonetheless, the University understands the concerns of faculty, and is exploring options with University Health Services, Student Affairs, and academic deans’ offices to address this issue.
Q. Why are student-athletes tested weekly?
A. The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) requires all conference members to test on a weekly basis student-athletes who are participating in sports. Students involved in off-campus academic practica, including nursing students, also will be tested weekly, and students who work in Dining Services, Residential Life, and the Margot Connell Recreation Center will be tested regularly, along with other high-contact community members.
Q. Are the increases in positive tests among sports teams a cause for concern?
A. Boston College has more than 750 varsity student-athletes and a total of 30 have tested positive. Currently, most teams–including football, men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, and men’s and women’s ice hockey–have no positive cases. Contrary to reports, there has been no correlation between practice/competition in fall sports and positive test cases. The University will continue to rely on its testing, quarantine and isolation, and contact tracing protocols to limit any potential spread.
Q. Will BC adjust its approach to testing?
A. While our focus will remain on targeted surveillance and rapid testing of students identified through contact tracing, and on the areas on and off campus where positive cases have occurred, we have and will continue to increase our testing volume as needed.
Q. Has BC disciplined students who have violated school policies regarding hosting parties and large gatherings, and for not wearing masks?
A. Our colleagues in Student Affairs have informed us that they disciplined students for these violations and will continue to do so. It is imperative that all members of the BC community follow public health and University guidelines to help us achieve a healthy and successful semester.
Q. What have we learned through the first four weeks of testing, and how have we adjusted our approach as a result?
A. Overall, we have learned that our testing strategy has worked well thus far, despite the concern caused by an increase in numbers last week. We have adopted more aggressive targeted surveillance testing due to positive cases, and we will continue to make adjustments as necessary throughout the semester in an effort to keep the campus community healthy and safe.
Q. How has the relationship with The Broad Institute worked for Boston College?
A. The partnership with The Broad Institute has worked very well. While the test results can occasionally take longer to process due to volume, The Broad has communicated results on a timely basis.
Q. The mayor of Newton has asked that BC transfer contact tracing for students who live in Newton to Newton’s Health and Human Services Department. What is BC’s response?
A. We will continue to work with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Contact Tracing Collaborative to identify those individuals requiring quarantine and isolation, as well as with public health authorities in Boston and Newton.
Q. Is there a scientific rationale in support of the University’s testing strategy?
A. This statement written by Biology Professor and Department Chair Welkin Johnson, provides context for the University’s testing strategy.
September 14, 2020