As the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus continues to spread through Tufts University’s campuses in the form of breakthrough infections, the university has clarified its quarantine, isolation and contact-tracing protocols. Notably, close contacts of COVID-19-positive individuals no longer need to quarantine and the university has reduced capacity to house students in isolation.
Amid these changes, students have reported confusion surrounding the university’s current policies and concern over a lack of infrastructure to support COVID-19-positive individuals and their close contacts.
Despite requiring vaccination for all on-campus students, faculty and staff, Tufts has experienced a swelling of COVID-19 infections since the start of the fall semester. The university opted to increase surveillance testing frequency to two times per week for undergraduate students on Sept. 16.
On Sept. 19, 93 Tufts community members were isolated — a measure that, according to Tufts’ COVID-19 webpage, “is used to separate people who are sick from people who are healthy.” That number is comparable to on-campus isolation figures from late January and early February 2021, when most of the Tufts community was not yet eligible for vaccination.
The number of daily new cases on the Medford, Somerville and Fenway campuses decreased by 19% over the week of Sept. 24–Oct. 1. As of Oct. 1, the number of people in isolation has decreased to 27.
Quarantine and isolation requirements
Like last semester, students who test positive for COVID-19 this semester must isolate themselves in the Mods or in their off-campus housing. Junior Amanda Westlake explained that Tufts instructed her to isolate in her off-campus housing after she began experiencing symptoms and then tested positive for COVID-19.
“I wasn’t feeling well … so I went and got tested first thing in the morning, and then the doctor called me and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, you have COVID,’ and then I immediately had to start isolating,” Westlake said. “I went right back to my room and I’ve been here ever since.”
The main adjustment to Tufts’ quarantine and isolation requirements from last semester is that students who are contact-traced as close contacts of an individual with COVID-19 no longer need to quarantine, provided they receive three negative PCR tests. University Infection Control Health Director Michael Jordan, elaborated on the university’s current testing policies for close contacts.
“Vaccinated [close contacts] do not need to quarantine but are tested as close as possible to the exposure, then again at days 4 and 7 after exposure,” Jordan wrote in an email to the Daily.
Westlake explained that her on-campus close contacts were instructed by the university to take rapid COVID-19 tests as soon as possible, but were not instructed to self-quarantine before they received the results of those tests.
“For the first day [my close contacts] didn’t go to classes until they got their negative tests,” Westlake said. “That was their own decision, not Tufts’ decision. I believe Tufts just said they could do whatever they want.”
Westlake also reported her parents as close contacts and was told they would be contacted about getting tested. However, the university never followed up with Westlake’s parents, who ended up taking tests without guidance from the university.
Sophomore Dan Zilberman, whose suitemate tested positive shortly after arrival on campus, said that the university provided very little guidance for him as a close contact. Ultimately, Health Service instructed Zilberman and his suitemates to wear masks at all times on campus and to get three additional COVID-19 tests, each three days apart.
“We were with our suitemate and she got a call and she was told she tested positive, and that she was going to go to the Mods and she started packing, and we didn’t know what the procedure was for us,” Zilberman said. “[Someone from Health Service] asked us to wear masks when we were on campus, even if we were outdoors, for the next 10 days after that. Otherwise she said to keep living life the same way.”
Current quarantine and isolation policies have also been confusing for faculty and staff. Zilberman said he explained the contact tracing procedures to a staff member at the testing center who was unaware of them previously.
“The person running the testing center came up to me and asked me, ‘Please tell me about your process. Please tell me what they told you because Tufts is telling me nothing and I have no idea what the testing protocol is and the only way I can find out is if I ask these students who have been contact-traced,’” Zilberman said.
The delta variant at Tufts
Despite the recent rise in COVID-19 cases on campus and increase in testing frequency to twice a week, the university has not changed its protocols on in-person dining and classes.
“The majority of virus circulating in Massachusetts is the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2,” Jordan said. “The Delta variant is highly contagious, so the number of cases we have seen at Tufts to date is not unexpected. Transmission is occurring in social gatherings. There is no evidence of transmission in classrooms, labs, or studios.”
Jordan added that there is currently sufficient isolation housing for students who have tested positive and that the university maintained its capacity to add more if necessary.
“Although some of the mods were removed this summer, connections for utilities were maintained on the site to allow us to set up new modular units if and when conditions warrant their addition,” Jordan said. “We are closely watching the number of COVID cases on campus and assessing whether additional units will be added as a precaution.”
University evaluating new booster shot recommendations from FDA, CDC
The United States Food and Drug Administration recently authorized a booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for populations that are particularly vulnerable to the virus, including those “whose frequent institutional or occupational exposure” to the virus puts them at increased risk, such as health care workers and teachers. Many members of the Tufts community, including faculty and medical center staff, could potentially fall into this category.
Dining workers and resident assistants are also in frequent close contact with a high volume of students, potentially putting them at a significant level of occupational risk, although there is no official guidance from the CDC or FDA on their eligibility for booster shots.
Jordan explained that Tufts is reviewing guidance from the CDC regarding booster shots.
“Students who qualify for a booster shot according to CDC guidance may seek vaccination at local pharmacies or their health care provider,” Jordan said. “Tufts also will be conducting clinics for those who are eligible. Those dates will be communicated to the community soon.”
Removal of infrastructure, lack of guidance for students in isolation and their contacts
Westlake said that it was hard to manage her classes during isolation with what she described as limited support from the university.
“It was extraordinarily difficult … I was in contact with my academic dean, but I do think there could be far more resources for students in isolation,” Westlake said. “And I also think that maybe people who haven’t gone through the experience don’t actually recognize the extreme mental and emotional toll and also physical toll.”
Westlake also explained that some of the mental health resources that had been created for students in isolation last year have now been removed, including an isolation support group that Counseling and Mental Health Services used to offer to build community among students in quarantine and isolation.
CMHS Director Julie Ross said CMHS ended certain group programs due to lack of student interest. CMHS has instead expanded programs that drew more students.
“There was almost no response to these group offerings although some students did choose to join some of our other groups, such as Journaling for Self Care,” Ross wrote in an email to the Daily. “We decided for the Spring semester to offer the group only once per week and reallocate the staff time to address other student needs … We added groups that garnered more interest from students, such as a second series of the Journaling group.”
Westlake noted that getting food is a challenge for off-campus students in isolation, since they cannot grocery shop and the university does not deliver food off campus as they do to students isolating in the Mods.
“I’m lucky enough to have my parents live nearby and [be able to] drop off some groceries but for instance, a student who lives alone, how would they get groceries?” Westlake said. “How would they be able to eat and survive? … That’s something that I’m definitely really concerned about.”
Zilberman added that he wished the university provided more guidance to students who are contact-traced, especially since the protocols have changed significantly since last year.
“I think they should make a point of reaching out to that person [who was contact-traced] and telling them what to do instead of having to try to figure it out on their own,” he said. “We felt really lost.”