A Q&A with University Health Services Director Dr. Douglas Comeau and virologist and Department of Biology Professor and Chair Welkin Johnson.
Q. What percentage of the BC community has been vaccinated against COVID-19?
A. Comeau: As of Monday, August 30, 99.3 percent of the Boston College community has been vaccinated, including 99.3 percent of BC faculty and staff, and 99.1 percent of undergraduate students. Counting University-approved exemptions, 100 percent of those intending to be on campus have complied with BC vaccination protocols.
Q. Why are there positive test results on a campus where 99 percent of community members have been vaccinated?
A. Johnson: The important takeaway is that the vaccine is protective. It is clear globally that the COVID-19 vaccine is stemming the spread of the virus, but it is also important to note that it is not 100 percent effective. There is a small but significant minority of cases where vaccinated people get breakthrough infections; if they are infected with the Delta variant, they tend to make virus at levels similar to unvaccinated people, which means vaccinated, infected people can spread the virus. So that is a concern. But the other thing to know, which is very clear from the data, is that vaccination keeps people out of hospitals. Even with vaccine breakthrough infections, people are generally having mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.
Growing up, almost everyone got the common cold, probably more frequently as a kid. The reason virtually almost no one is hospitalized for the cold now is because our immune systems are pretty effective at dealing with the rhinoviruses that causes the common cold. What the COVID-19 vaccine does is it makes our immune systems effective at dealing with the SARS coronavirus. So it's a very positive thing. The vaccine is having a very important effect, but people have to remember that the vaccine is not a guarantee that they will not get or spread the virus.
Q. What can we do at Boston College to protect the community and ourselves?
A. Comeau: Because breakthrough infections do exist, we as a Boston College community, despite remarkable vaccination rates, still want to be cognizant of maintaining appropriate health protocols, which include not going out if we are sick, getting tested if we experience symptoms of COVID-19, and limiting our presence in places that do not have the high vaccination rates that we have at Boston College.
Even though Massachusetts is the second most-vaccinated state in the United States as of last week, and our Boston College community has a 99 percent-plus vaccination rate, the city and surrounding area outside of the Boston College community may not be as highly vaccinated. So we urge our Boston College community members to use an abundance of caution when they go into public places—whether it be social situations, bars, restaurants, or other places outside of the Boston College community—to help protect themselves.
Q. What about mask usage?
A. Comeau: Boston College has met the requirements of the City of Boston that masks be worn in indoor spaces on campus that are open to the public, including dining halls, the BC Bookstore in Maloney Hall, the McMullen Museum, and Conte Forum. By September 2, the University will also be in compliance with the City of Newton’s regulations regarding mask usage in indoor spaces that are open to the public, including dining halls and the BC Bookstore in McElroy Commons.
Given the impressively high vaccination rate among students, faculty, and staff, and the desire to have as normal a year as possible, Boston College has chosen not to begin the school year with masks in classrooms and laboratories. However, the University intends to be vigilant and flexible in responding to COVID-19, and will make adjustments as needed, including use of masks in classrooms and labs should the campus positivity rate rise to higher than desired levels. We continue to encourage students, faculty, and staff who wish to wear masks in classrooms and other indoor places on campus to do so.
Q. In general, why is the Delta variant creating a resurgence of positive COVID-19 cases, and are there other variants about which we need to be concerned?
A. Johnson: The Delta variant is highly transmissible. It is better at attacking the human respiratory pathway and in an uncontrolled infection produces very high levels of virus. So somebody who is infected can also be expelling and transmitting more virus than somebody with a well-controlled infection.
On a positive note, the vaccine still works well against the Delta variant. It protects most people from infection. And even those who get infected with the Delta variant are overwhelmingly not being hospitalized. When we look at who is winding up in the hospital or in the ICU, it is people who are not vaccinated.
A. Comeau: As of last week, 98 percent of hospitalizations from COVID-19 involved unvaccinated individuals.
The issue is that many vaccinated people feel like they have invincibility because they have been vaccinated, especially those who have been exposed to COVID in the past and obtained the COVID-19 vaccination for further protection. Unfortunately, the vaccine is not 100 percent effective; we still have to keep our guard up in situations where there could be exposure risk.
Q. What steps will Boston College take in managing the coronavirus this semester?
A. Comeau: Similar to last year, we have a lot of flexibility not only with our on-campus COVID-19 management, but also with our on-campus testing. We are going to monitor trends in the Boston College community so we can make testing adjustments accordingly. We have an on-campus lab, but we also have external resources to test as frequently as we need to. We still have daily 24-hour care at University Health Services where we can take care of any symptomatic patient, and we can perform a point-of-care PCR or antigen test, but also send further confirmatory PCR testing to our on-campus lab. We are offering targeted asymptomatic surveillance testing in which we are focusing on high contact individuals, but we will also include other members of the Boston College community in weekly testing. We will adjust the number of tests every week, based on our positivity trends.
In looking at last year's data, it showed that our targeted asymptomatic surveillance strategy was effective in mitigating COVID-19 on campus. Clusters were identified early on and frequency of testing was increased, in addition to contact tracing that took place almost immediately after a positive test was rendered within a four to six hour period. By doing this and following our isolation and quarantine protocols, we were able to limit the number of positive cases on campus. Now, with a highly vaccinated community, those students who do test positive for COVID-19 will still have to go to isolation, but their close contacts will not have to quarantine because they have been vaccinated. The close contacts will be tested, but they will not be required to quarantine, in accordance with CDC guidelines.
Q. What about those who have been granted an exemption for medical or religious purposes?
A. Comeau: With a 99 percent-plus vaccination rate on campus, we have very few faculty, staff, and students who have been approved for a University exemption. Those who have an exemption will be required to wear masks, indoors and outdoors at all times, except when eating, drinking and, in the case of students, sleeping in their residence hall. In addition to mask wearing, these individuals will be required to test regularly, starting at a rate of twice weekly.
Q. What is your prognosis for the pandemic in the coming months?
A. Comeau: It is very hard in medicine to have a prognosis for a disease, particularly in the case of a pandemic. We as physicians and as scientists are learning every day about the ramifications of COVID, its variants, and its effect on the world. Looking ahead to the next month or so, I believe that the overall COVID-19 positivity rate will go down. There are other variants on the horizon, such as Lambda, which we will continue to monitor daily with the CDC, the Mass. Department of Public Health, and also local epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists, but I am optimistic for the future.
A. Johnson: The world has never been better prepared in terms of having the tools, surveillance methods, and vaccine technology to actually deal with a global pandemic like this. We have everything we need to control it and suppress it. The remaining piece is to get everybody to comply and get vaccinated. That is our best defense against COVID-19.
Q. What is your advice regarding booster shots for those who have been fully vaccinated?
A. Comeau: Booster shots for those who received Pfizer and Moderna vaccinations will be available after September 20th for the regular community at local pharmacies. For those who received the Janssen, or Johnson & Johnson, vaccination it was recently announced that they will be having a booster shot, but it is not yet available. The CDC recommends a booster dose eight months after you have been fully vaccinated. As a doctor, I would definitely recommend getting the booster shot because it can be of help from a protective standpoint.
Q. What immediate steps can people take to protect themselves and their families?
A. Comeau: Just like any other illness, appropriate hygiene is of the utmost importance. So washing your hands frequently with warm soapy water, paying attention to your surroundings, and getting tested if you start to have symptoms. Symptoms of COVID-19 include nasal congestion, sore throat, fever, chills, and even GI illness. If you have these symptoms you should stay home. Or if you are a student on campus you should call University Health Services and be evaluated and tested for COVID.
A. Johnson: On a personal note, I keep a mask with me all the time. I don't assume, especially in crowded situations outside of Boston College, to know what is going on with other people. I think it is also important as a community that we respect and understand that everyone's situation is different. So we may have colleagues who have children at home under 12, who are understandably anxious. And so I keep the mask with me for those reasons. If I am meeting in close quarters with somebody who prefers for personal reasons that I wear a mask, I will. It is the right thing to do to help reassure them. Everybody, of course, is free to wear a mask wherever and whenever they want, and I think keeping it with you and being prepared to use it when in doubt is a good idea.
University Communications | August 2021