Thousands of college students have returned to the Boston area after the Thanksgiving break and they pose a risk of carrying COVID-19 infections with them. But researchers say colleges in Massachusetts and the rest of New England so far have been national models in testing frequently and containing the virus.
“New England is crushing it,” says Chris Marsicano, who directs the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, which has been tracking colleges’ COVID plans.
Marsicano’s research team finds just eight percent of colleges nationwide required testing as students left for Thanksgiving.
“It’s incredibly concerning,” Marsicano said. “Whenever students move from one point to another, they spread the disease with them.”
In New England, though, 90 percent of colleges offering some in-person classes did frequent testing before the break. “There's no region that has a greater proportion of its institutions testing weekly or bi-weekly than New England,” Marsicano said.
The pandemic has created a logistical nightmare for colleges. After the Thanksgiving break, many colleges, including Emerson, MIT and Brandeis, cut short the in-person semester. But others, like Boston University and Northeastern, are staying the course with some in-person classes, even as the state’s infection rate surges.
That situation raises the risk that those local colleges could become what one medical historian calls “the Wuhans of the fall surge.”
The Broad Institute, which has conducted much of the testing in New England, says about one to two in a thousand on-campus tests came back positive this semester.
“Here in Massachusetts, I think we’re actually lighting the way to how to live and learn in the age of COVID,” said Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which partnered with the Broad Institute to test its students, faculty and staff weekly.
WPI administrators asked those students who went home for Thanksgiving to stay there. Still, Leshin acknowledges there’s no way to guarantee students complied.
“That’s one really important reason we’re continuing to test everybody,” she said. “We did over a thousand tests yesterday.”
Leshin, who led a group of college presidents that rolled out guidelines for re-opening campuses in Massachusetts this fall, says WPI has managed to stay open with 80 positive cases reported since August.
“I really sincerely hope that other parts of the country look to our successful model and set up a way that they can do the same because we’ve shown that it’s possible to stay open and keep operating with relatively low case numbers,” she said.
Without naming names, the nation's top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci told GBH News some colleges are doing a good job, while others are not.
What grade would Fauci give colleges so far?
“Mixed,” Fauci said. “I don’t want to grade the college enterprise as a whole because I’d be insulting those that are doing it so well, but those who are not should seriously look at some of the colleges that are doing it well.”
Fauci says COVID testing on campus serves as a model for the rest of the country.
“The colleges that are doing it right have a very low-level of outbreaks,” he said.
Before Thanksgiving, Boston University administrators strongly encouraged students who went home to stay there and said those who did return to campus should quarantine for two weeks unless they have three consecutive negative tests.
Some faculty, though, are skeptical of this approach.
“By the time you get cleared, there's only two weeks of class and I think one of them is a reading period, so it doesn't really make much sense,” said Michael Siegel, who teaches epidemiology at BU’s School of Public Health.
Since September, Siegel and other professors have beencritical of BU’s decision to offer in-person classes, saying it proved that New England’s largest private university is more concerned about its bottom line than public health.
Three months and tens of thousands of tests later, BU is reporting more than 500 positive cases – but a minuscule 0.1% positivity rate.
Still, Siegel thinks BU is being reckless and putting other residents of greater Boston at risk.
“I really can only think of one reason why they are holding the line right now, which is essentially hubris, stubbornness,” Siegel said. “They don’t want to admit failure.”
And Siegel says the low-level of outbreaks only proves administrators at BU and elsewhere got “lucky.”
“There was no guarantee that this would happen,” Siegel said. “I’m not willing to say that this was a success because just last week there were 14 staff members that came down with COVID.”
Looking ahead, Siegel is worried about the remainder of the semester as infection rates on campus – and across the country – continue to climb.
But BU spokeswoman Rachel Lapal Cavallario said the relatively low infection rate on campus is not just good fortune. “Guided by public health and safety best practices, BU implemented frequent testing, contact tracing, and quarantine and isolation housing," Lapal said. "This system along with the BU community’s commitment to follow public health protocols, such as wearing a face covering, physical distancing, completing daily attestations, testing and cooperating with contact tracing has led to lower positivity rates this semester.”
Diane Adame contributed to this report.