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University COVID-19 positive rate drops significantly

A photo of a student monitering a desk at the Richard C. Logan Gymnasium.
Leighah Beusoleil / THE GATEPOST

By Leighah Beausoleil

Students and faculty members returned to the classroom this week after beginning the Spring 2022 Semester with two weeks of remote learning.

Initially, only one week of virtual classes was to be held at the start of the semester to allow Residence Life to stagger move in and to provide more time for onboard testing, according to a Dec. 27 email from President F. Javier Cevallos.

According to a Jan. 13 email, this was extended to allow for more onboarding testing and time for students to isolate themselves before returning to in-person classes.

During the first week of onboard testing, FSU saw a 6.1% positive rate.

According to a Feb. 2 community-wide email from Cevallos, last week saw a positive test rate of 1.6%, while this week, the rate was only 0.7%.

Resident students are required to test bi-weekly, while commuter students will be subject to random-sample testing.

Health Center Director Ilene Hofrenning said the University’s testing rate is doing well in comparison to Massachusetts as a whole.

Massachusetts’ average positive test rate hit its peak for the month of January on the 13th at 22.2%, according to the Mayo Clinic. Since then, the positive test rate has been steadily decreasing and now sits at 10.4% as of Feb. 1.

Hofrenning said the decreased positive test rate is “not surprising.” She explained this is because scientists test the wastewater several times a week to assess for COVID-19.

She said, “That’s kind of a leading indicator because the virus in wastewater shot way up before the number of cases increased,” adding now “that is coming down almost as fast as it went up.”

Cevallos said if these results continue and more students upload their COVID-19 booster information to Medicat, “we may be able to start easing our mitigation efforts sooner than we had planned.”

In a Dec. 22 community-wide email, Cevallos announced the decision to require all students, faculty, and staff to get the booster shot within 30 days of eligibility.

Ann McDonald, chief of staff and general counsel, said the mandate for booster shots had already been negotiated in each of the four employee union contracts when the initial vaccine mandate was negotiated.

McDonald said among the nine sister institutions, boosters for students hadn’t been initially addressed, but said based on those discussions, the Council of Presidents “augmented that decision to extend it to students.”

The Health Center will be holding a COVID-19 booster clinic Monday, Feb. 7 from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. in the Old Gymnasium in the Athletic Center, according to Hofrenning.

The first two hours are for scheduled appointments, while the last two hours will be for walk-ins, according to the clinic’s `yer.

According to a Feb. 2 email to students from Dean of Students Meg Nowak Borrego, only 40% of students have indicated through Medicat they have received the booster vaccine.

McDonald said one difficulty in getting students to get their booster is that many got COVID-19 over the break and different physicians are recommending di]erent wait times between getting the virus and getting boosted.

“So we’re trying to give folks a little bit of leeway who are getting those kinds of recommendations,” she said.

Hofrenning said the University knows some students have received boosters, but have just not inputted their information.

She added this conclusion was able to be drawn through the use of a Department of Public Health website called the Massachusetts Immunization Inventory System.

Those who administer immunizations will input the information in this system and the University is able to search for students, she said.

Hofrenning added the task is a “huge undertaking,” but said the University is trying to curate an accurate record of boosted students to avoid unenrolling them from their courses.

She said data from last semester showed no indication of classrooms being a place for transmissibility, adding the classroom is a more “controlled” environment where there is masking and social distancing.

Ellen Zimmerman, interim provost and vice president of Academic Affairs, said, “We’ve had very little classroom transmission and last fall, we had no evidence of classroom transmission. All the cases where we did contact tracing proved to be not from a classroom.”

Zimmerman said Facilities has “amped up air flows in the classrooms to the maximum” to allow more fresh air to be circulated by the HVAC system.

She added another change to the classrooms is “we aren’t filling the classrooms as full.

“We limited the enrollments in classes in order to enable the lower numbers and have added sections where we needed them because of that,” she said.

Zimmerman added everyone in the classrooms are either vaccinated or exempt and tested weekly.

Hofrenning said approximately 100 to 120 students have vaccine exemptions, adding the majority is for religious reasons.

She added there are “very few” medical conditions that restrict people from the vaccine and said it is mainly those who have an allergy to something in the vaccine.

Hofrenning said though she is not too concerned about classrooms, she is worried about transmission in social settings such as the Dining Commons.

“I hate to say this because it’s fun – hanging out with your friends – but I think that the dining hall should not be thought of as a social event,” she said. “People should just go in there, get their food, eat, leave, and not be spending a lot of time talking without their masks on.”

The Dining Commons underwent changes for the Spring 2022 Semester, including required reservations for eating in, limited seating time, and the option to take food to go.

Aretha Phillips, director of Dining Services, said the reservations are meant to limit the number of students in the Dining Commons at one time to allow for more social distancing.

She said there are approximately 400 seats in the Dining Commons and the reservations are restricted to fewer than that.

“I know they were making some changes because we had less seats available [in the system] than we actually had,” she added. “So it needed to be adjusted.”

Philips said seating time is limited to 30 minutes per person, adding this is regulated by staff “just walking around and just noticing how long people are there for.”

She added if a staff member notices someone is there longer than the regulated time, they will remind the person of the time restrictions.

She said that has not happened this semester, but has happened in the past.

Dining Services has implemented the use of their green reusable container program to allow students to take meals to go.

Philips said using the mobile ordering system from previous semesters would not have been feasible because “there’s more students. That would not have been logistically possible to actually support that program and provide all the meal options that we were providing previously.”

She added the use of the green containers also means Dining Services does not have to take away resources and staff from other services to put toward mobile ordering.

She said she believes these new protocols have been “good” so far.

“I’ve always said students have been doing a great job with actually keeping the COVID cases really low on campus compared to other universities that I’m familiar with in my district,” Philips said. “I feel so fortunate.”

[Editor’s Note: James Barraford and Stefano Hernandez contributed to this article.]

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