Tufts reported 463 cases of COVID-19 across campuses this semester, or approximately 33 per week, according to Patrick Collins, Tufts executive director of media relations. This represents a 12.6% decrease in the number of cases compared to last spring, when the university reported 530 cases.
According to Collins, 321 of these cases came from the Medford campus, 32 came from the Grafton campus, 105 came from the Boston campus, and five cases were not attributed to any campus, as of Dec. 11.
Christoper Sedore, vice president for information technology and chief information officer, told the Daily that as of Dec. 7, an estimated 1,720 students have been considered close contacts of COVID-19-positive individuals.
Cases reached their peak this semester the week of Sept. 13, the first full week of classes, when the university reported a positivity rate of 2% compared to the semester’s average positivity rate of 0.25%. The number of students in isolation peaked at 93 during the same week.
The university announced it would increase testing frequency from one to two times per week for undergraduate students on Sept. 14. Students continued testing twice weekly for the rest of the semester. In addition to the increase in testing frequency, the university announced on Oct. 4 that it would add a third modular housing unit with 44 additional beds on the Medford/Somerville campus in response to the increase in COVID-19 cases.
Unlike last fall, students who traveled off campus for Thanksgiving break were not required to quarantine or take any additional safety measures beyond regular surveillance testing. The number of students in isolation on the Medford campus more than tripled — rising from 17 to 52 — between Nov. 27, the Saturday following Thanksgiving, and Dec. 8.
A new variant of the COVID-19 virus was detected in South Africa on Nov. 24. Two days later, the World Health Organization convened, naming the new variant omicron and urging countries to enhance surveillance for the variant.
The Boston Globe reported the first case of the omicron variant in Massachusetts on Dec. 5. Michael Jordan, university infection control health director, said that the tests Tufts administers are able to detect the omicron variant.
On Dec. 13, Jordan sent an email to the Tufts community encouraging people to wear 3-ply disposable masks instead of cloth masks, given the recent increase in cases in Massachusetts and around the country and the emergence of the omicron variant. In the same email, Jordan stressed the university’s mask mandate and urged people hosting events on and off campus to serve food to go rather than in person and not to serve alcohol in order to minimize viral spread while eating and drinking.
Tufts implements vaccine mandate, pooled testing; relaxes quarantine and screening policies
This semester saw the university adopt a COVID-19 vaccination requirement and move to a twice-weekly pooled testing regimen for undergraduate students.
Tufts announced in April that it would require all on-campus students, faculty and staff to demonstrate proof of a COVID-19 vaccination for the fall 2021 semester barring a religious or medical exemption. According to Sedore, 96% of COVID-19 cases this semester were breakthrough infections.
Jordan described the university’s other COVID-19 protocols and how they helped keep the community safe this semester.
“The COVID protocols for the fall semester evolved in accordance with local, state and federal guidance but continued to be stringent and rigorous to keep students, faculty and staff, as well as the surrounding community, safe,” Jordan said in a written statement. “We required COVID vaccinations, continued to require surveillance testing and indoor masking, have conducted rigorous contact tracing, emphasized good hand hygiene, urged students to avoid crowded indoor spaces, and have strongly encouraged students to obtain COVID booster shots and flu vaccinations.”
Jordan explained that taken together, these protocols helped the university avoid a major COVID-19 outbreak.
“While vaccinations have played an important role in minimizing spread this fall, it’s the combination of these protocols — and our community’s compliance with them — that have worked to prevent major outbreaks on our campuses this fall,” Jordan said.
Medical Director of Health Services Marie Caggiano explained Tufts’ decision to move to a pooled testing system this semester, a shift from the individual testing the university conducted last semester.
“Combining samples from multiple people into a single test is more environmentally sustainable and offers significant resource and cost savings without sacrificing the accuracy or speed of individual testing,” Caggiano said in a written statement. “The environmental impact is significantly less, with one larger tube being used in the pooled test vs. 10 smaller ones being used in the individual test.”
Caggiano also reported the university’s pooled testing strategy costs about one third of the previous diagnostic testing strategy.
Tufts also modified its quarantine and isolation procedures this semester. Previously, students identified as close contacts of a COVID-positive individual were asked to self-quarantine or isolate in the mods. This semester, those identified as close contacts were asked to take an individual COVID-19 test but were not required to quarantine while they waited for their test result.
In December, Tufts stopped asking community members to fill out the daily COVID-19 screening survey, which asked a series of questions about COVID-19 symptoms and exposure. Students had to fill out the screening survey in order to enter the Steve Tisch Sports and Fitness Center, performing arts events and other spaces on campus.
“In general, symptom screening surveys have not proven to be as effective a public health tool as anticipated,” Jordan said. “Tufts guidance continues to be that nobody – including visitors – should come to campus if they have COVID symptoms.”
University plans to continue current policies into Spring semester
According to Jordan, the university is in the process of determining whether to require COVID-19 booster shots for the Tufts community next semester. The CDC recommends that everyone aged 18 and older should get a booster shot six months after receiving two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or two months after receiving the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.
“We are carefully evaluating CDC and state guidance and have not yet made a decision regarding booster requirements,” Jordan said. “However, getting a booster is probably the single most important thing that … any eligible individual can do to decrease their own risk and to protect their loved ones. We very strongly encourage eligible individuals to receive a COVID-19 booster.”
Despite many unknowns about the transmissibility and severity of omicron cases, Jordan expects the university to continue its current COVID-19 policies into the spring semester.
“At the moment, we anticipate no changes to the protocols or the cadence of testing for the spring semester,” Jordan said. “However, we will continue to watch daily case numbers and trends and make data-driven decisions that prioritize the community’s health.”