Recent drop in campus COVID-19 cases follows January surge

The Tufts COVID-19 Testing Center at the Somerville/Medford campus is pictured on Feb. 20, 2021. Nicole Garay / The Tufts Daily

Student and faculty COVID-19 cases skyrocketed after students began returning to campus in mid-January. Though numbers are now dropping, the surge raised concerns about how well students are abiding by the guidelines put in place by the administration to limit the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

According to the Daily’s COVID-19 dashboard, cases on the Medford/Somerville campus hit a peak on Jan. 25, when there were 21 new cases reported. The average cases per 100,000 individuals reached 144 for the Medford/Somerville campus on Jan. 31. On the same day, there was an average case rate of 50 per 100,000 in Massachusetts. Since then, numbers have improved, with only three new cases on Feb. 18. 

Michael Jordan, university infection control health director, said the high case numbers are likely due to students traveling back to campus from other states, as well as winter weather.

“We have experienced a higher positivity rate this semester as compared to the fall,” Jordan wrote in an email to the Daily. “While it is possible that we have variants in the community, the rates at Tufts also track with a national surge in cases that has occurred in recent months … Over the last week, our test positivity has started to decline towards pre-surge levels, and we hope that this trend will continue.”

Jordan also noted that there is no need for concern over quarantine and isolation locations reaching maximum capacity or a change of status as a result.

“At this point in time, less than half of our capacity for quarantine/isolation is used,” Jordan said. “Space in the mods is only one of many factors that we consider in setting the status level for the Medford-Somerville campus, so by itself it would not be a determining factor of a change in status.”

For many students, the thought of receiving a positive test result may evoke the fear of being temporarily housed in the Mods for their isolation period. However, Claire Wilkinson, a sophomore who tested positive for COVID-19 in the end of January, urged students to not be scared of the Mods and explained the level of medical care she received during her stay.

“The Mods are very intimidating I think before you go in, but once you unpack your stuff and figure out everything, you can pretty much just [relax] for the next however many days you are in there, which is usually 10,” Wilkinson said. “People came every morning at around 9 or 10 [o’clock in the morning] to check on us … take our temperature … check our pulse [and] just to make sure we’re doing okay and [ask] if we needed anything.”

Wilkinson also commented on what living with other students during the pandemic is like.

“In terms of me and my suite, we pretty much follow the rules of whoever is the most cautious …I just think it depends on what you believe and what the people you live with believe,” Wilkinson said.  

When asked about whether students who break COVID-19 guidelines and then test positive should be punished, briana Sevigny, director of community standards on campus, responded. 

“Students found to be in violation of the COVID-19 protocols do face consequences ranging from reprimands to disciplinary suspensions,” Sevigny wrote in an email to the Daily.

However, Sevigny said that the administration’s guidelines are in place to maintain safety, rather than to provide opportunities for punishment. She also reaffirmed that students who follow the rules are benefiting themselves by protecting the community.

“The university’s emphasis is not on punishment but on student safety, helping students make wise choices, and empowering them to learn from their mistakes,” Sevigny said. “Students owe it to themselves, each other and our community to observe the protocols and do their best at all times to minimize the risk of infection to themselves and others.” 

Dean of Student Affairs and Chief Student Affairs Officer Camille Lizarríbar shared a similar sentiment in an op-ed recently published in the Daily. 

Case numbers have been decreasing in recent weeks, which is an improvement from where the numbers were immediately after arrival quarantine. Regardless, Jordan urged students to remain diligent and to not let this give them a false sense of security.

“It’s more important than ever for our community members to continue to follow the university’s current public health safety protocols, including continuing to wear properly fitting face masks in public spaces, follow physical distancing guidelines, and practice proper hand hygiene,” Jordan said.

Jordan expanded on this, referencing a point similar to the one Wilkinson made about living with others.

“Household transmission of the virus has been seen to be common and individuals may significantly reduce their risk of being infected by following these safety practices within their residence halls or off-campus apartments, even when among their roommates or housemates,” Jordan said.