College Observes Concerning COVID Trends in First Week of March

Hui Li ‘21 

Co-Chief Graphic Designer

On the evening of Friday, March 5, the Holy Cross community received a notice from the college’s “Coronavirus Updates” email account. The message, titled “Weekly Update: March 5, 2021,” contained information about a concerning trend in the number of COVID-19 cases at Holy Cross: the number of positive cases and close contacts has increased greatly in the past week. The email stated that while the college will remain a Yellow alert level, this uptick in both confirmed and potential cases of the disease has brought the college “very close to having to move to the ORANGE [sic.] alert level.”

The Spire was able to obtain more information regarding this news from David Shettler, Director of COVID Operations, at a Zoom meeting in which he spoke to student leaders about the concerning patterns he noticed over the past week.

During the Zoom call, Shettler stated that for most of February, the number of positive cases in the community was low. However, this started to change after a COVID outbreak was discovered in Brooks Hall and students on one floor of the dorm were sent to quarantine at the College Isolation Space. (Read The Spire’s article on the Brooks Hall situation here)

“We were hoping that what happened in Brooks was an isolated situation and that we were not seeing the beginning of any sort of changing trends. The reality, though, is that the testing throughout this week has revealed that cases are on the rise,” he said.

According to recent information on the COVID dashboard, there have been 20 new cases of COVID-19 detected in the student body between February 25 and March 5. All 20 students have been placed in the College Isolation Space. 100 others were identified as close contacts of the positive cases; they have since been sent to quarantine.

Regarding the situation, he said, “We’re built to handle a week like this. That’s not the problem. The concern is if this persists. This is not sustainable.” The information regarding the college’s COVID response capacity confirms this. The weekly metrics provided in the March 5 update email stated that the college’s isolation and quarantine capacity is “60% available.” This is the lowest amount of available space that the college has had to move infectious students since the beginning of the semester. Shettler added another percentage to this information: the isolation and quarantine capacity at the Holiday Inn Express, where the college has been sending students who test positive to isolate and close contacts to quarantine, is now at 37% availability.

This figure is lower than the 60% figure reported in the update because while Holy Cross has been using the hotel as the College Isolation Space, there is also some overflow space in the college’s own Loyola Hall. Should the 37% availability at the Holiday Inn Express fall to 0%, students who need to either quarantine or isolate afterward will no longer be able to be moved away from campus: they will be staying in Loyola Hall for the appropriate amount of quarantine/isolation time. “Depending how next week goes, we might have to start using our overflow space,” added Shettler. “That presents a whole number of challenges for us logistically. We have to staff two separate locations with our isolation and quarantine team. It really doesn’t bode well for the future.”

In addition to his concerns about accommodation capacities, Shettler shared some concerns that he has been hearing from contact tracers and Health Services staff.  One of them was the fact that students have been driving together. “Being in a car together is probably one of the best ways to get COVID that you can think of. It’s also a fantastic way to become a close contact, and we’ve seen it time and time again,” he stated.

An attitude that Shettler has observed in the student body is something he summarizes as “We’re going to get quarantined anyway, so why bother, what’s the point?” To that, he responded, “The truth is that a resigned perspective like that is definitely an easy way to get yourself quarantined for more than one quarantine. It’s a way to end up in quarantine, and maybe in isolation, for a good chunk of the term. We can’t have that being the prevailing thought. We need to have people be diligent.”

Graphic Design by Hui Li’ 21; Information from the COVID Dashboard (Checked 3/6/2021) and David Shettler, Director of COVID Operations

Another concern that Shettler has been hearing is the apparent peer pressure amongst students to not follow one of the most basic rules of COVID safety. He said, “I’m hearing that there is peer pressure about not wearing a mask in some social events. I don’t know what to say about that, except that that kind of peer pressure is basically peer pressure to end the term, which none of us want.” His words rang true amongst the student leaders in the Zoom call; it has been nearly one year since a majority of the student body left campus to complete the Spring 2020 semester remotely after the concerning trend of rising COVID cases made living on campus unsafe for the community. (Read The Spire’s article on the campus closing in March 2020 here)

Something else that Shettler has been hearing is students saying “I’m just in my pod” or “I’m just with my group of friends” alongside “It’s fine if I’m just in my pod, or group of friends, or my team, or my student organization.” To that, he says, “A pod tends to be way bigger than you think it is. You may think your pod is 4 or 5 people. Well, all it takes is one of those people to go out on a date or to slightly leave the pod, and now your pod is extended to whomever they had contact with. This is an exponential thing that happens. One deviation outside of your pod leads to this, and that’s true, that’s what happens, that’s how this thing spreads like wildfire.”

Shettler stated that while many state COVID restrictions have been loosened in the past few weeks, this does not mean that the COVID safety rules have been loosened at Holy Cross. The question he has been hearing is “Everything is loosening up, why are we not?” The answer to that is related to the fact that even though cases have been decreasing nationwide, and cases in Massachusetts have not been increasing, the number of cases is still cause for concern. “Nationally, cases have been on the decline, and here in Massachusetts, we’ve been on the decline until recently – we’ve sort of plateaued in [the state] – and while the state numbers are certainly better than they have been, they’re not good. The numbers are still at a rate that should still concern everyone, despite the fact that we’re off of these mega peaks from the holidays, it’s still not in a good place, as far as COVID numbers go,” he said.

Adding to these concerning numbers is the fact that, according to Shettler and researchers at the Boston Consortium, which analyzes COVID data from college students in Boston and in other places in the state, the more infectious variant found in the United Kingdom is in Massachusetts. This variant of the virus is not more dangerous than the strain that the Holy Cross community has been facing for nearly a year, but it is more contagious and spreads more easily among people. Shettler said that this is cause for concern, and students must continue to be diligent in COVID safety measures because “[t]he college is a residential, congregate setting” where this more infectious strain could cause larger problems and impact more people in the community.

Looking ahead to upcoming dates like St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) and the college’s Easter Break (April 1 – April 7), Shettler said, “This situation is raising some alarm bells.” He is particularly concerned about a spike in COVID-19 during two weeks that he says “provides the kind of environment that COVID loves.” Every year, the Office of Student Affairs has sent notices and warnings about student misconduct linked to large St. Patrick’s Day celebrations on campus and in the surrounding College Hill neighborhood. Should the kind of behavior that these yearly emails describe happen this March, the consequences will go beyond property damage, arrests, and student conduct meetings: students who engage in unsafe behaviors will endanger the community. Likewise, if students travel extensively and unnecessarily during Easter Break and do not follow COVID safety protocols, they could carry the virus to the community and put others at risk of contracting the disease. Even students who forgo travelling and stay on campus could pose a risk if they engage in reckless behaviors in large gatherings similar to those usually seen on St. Patrick’s Day.

Regarding a possible shift back to Orange alert level, Shettler said, “I don’t want us to shift to Orange. I really don’t. We’re on the way, however. If we go Orange, it’ll be a different flavor of Orange than the one we experienced during Move-In. It will be a more restrictive color of Orange. We as a community have a choice. We can spend the next couple of weeks partying and having a really good time, and then shutting down. Or we can double down on our efforts and our safety measures and we can keep the semester alive.”

Shettler ended the meeting on a more hopeful note. “There are things that are positive that are happening on campus, like compliance numbers have been going up steadily week after week. People are testing. That’s great! From my understanding, conduct issues are under control, we are not seeing massive conduct problems as it relates to COVID, although that can change [soon]. So far, things have been pretty good.”

In closing, Shettler shared a message that he sent to the executive college before he saw the recent trends in COVID-19 cases: “Those we have to credit for the success of the term absolutely are students. You have been doing the right things. But of course, we’ve got to keep it up.”

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