What’s different about COVID-19 transmission rates on college campuses? Experts weigh in.

The Medford/Somerville campus COVID-19 testing site is pictured on Sept. 20, 2020. Nicole Garay / The Tufts Daily

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact communities around the United States and the world, certain trends have emerged surrounding infection rates and their link with prevention measures including surveillance testing, masking and vaccine mandates. Experts agree that, especially on college campuses, these measures are essential in curbing the spread of COVID-19. 

The number of college COVID-19 infections was at its worst in Massachusetts as college students returned to campus after winter break in early 2021, according to Mary Hopkins, an infectious disease physician at Tufts Medical Center.

“In summer 2020, we had a honeymoon period before the delta variant arrived,” Hopkins said. “We had the worst of our infections in the spring of 2020. People started to mask up, people started to socially distance and the delta variant wasn’t here. And so as students came back in [summer] 2020, yes, there was a surge of cases, but not quite as bad as when they came back from winter break, January 2021 … And I blamed that on [students having] to travel in a short period of time, see all their family members and return in a short period of time.”

Thomas Stopka, an epidemiologist at the Tufts University School of Medicine, praised Tufts’ COVID-19 prevention efforts, especially in regard to surveillance testing. Despite some fluctuations and the elevated risks presented by travel and mass transit, cases have generally been well-monitored and contained. 

Yet an increase in positivity and infection rates was observed as students returned to campus this fall, which Stopka attributes to the wide variety of communities from which students travel. The same trend was apparent in January, as students returned back to campus after spending winter break in their respective communities and was consistent with the increase in cases when students returned to campus in fall 2020 as well.

According to Tufts’ COVID-19 dashboard, Tufts’ Medford/Somerville and Fenway campuses saw a spike in cases at the beginning of the fall 2021 semester. Between Sept. 12–18,  78 cases were reported in one week on campus. Regarding the current situation, Tufts reported 18 COVID-19 cases on the Medford/Somerville and Fenway campuses from Nov. 25 to Dec. 1, averaging 2.57 cases per day.

COVID-19 policies on college campuses vary elsewhere in Massachusetts. Andrew Lover, an epidemiologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said that UMass Amherst does not require surveillance testing for its vaccinated students. The university has other measures in place to curb the spread of COVID-19 such as a vaccine mandate, required testing for unvaccinated students and sewage sampling procedures that test samples from dorms and buildings around campus. 

Lover noted that, like Tufts, UMass Amherst also saw a spike in COVID-19 cases at the very beginning of the fall 2021 semester. This trend was not surprising, and he attributed it to many people returning to campus, mixing with one another and participating in normal social activities.

“We managed to bring that back under control quite quickly with a lot of testing and good messaging to have people come in with any symptoms,” Lover said. “Since then, it’s been really very, very quiet.”

Hopkins said she believes that, in accordance with the trends from the past year, there may be an increase in COVID-19 cases following the upcoming winter break. However, she noted the role that higher vaccination rates will play, now that most students are vaccinated, unlike last winter.

The idea that college campuses may be considered bubbles has been discussed, as they may seem closed off or removed from the communities that surround them. However, despite enforced, campus-wide protocols and consistent surveillance testing, students have lives that extend beyond the campus borders.

Stopka said that he would consider Tufts and other universities employing similar protocols as safe locations, but he would not say that college students live in a bubble on campus. 

“Have we had better access to testing and vaccines than some of the surrounding communities early on in the pandemic? Yes, definitely,” Stopka said. “At this point in time, Tufts and other universities probably have access to better resources when it comes to surveillance, testing and vaccination. But that has begun to change considerably.”

Hopkins agreed that it is hard to classify college campuses as bubbles, especially in the case of urban or suburban campuses like Tufts. Although Tufts and other universities in the Boston area are doing very well in keeping their campuses safe, there is always an increased chance of exposure. Many college students lead very busy lives, between their different classes, their social activities and friends on campus and their exploration of the communities surrounding Tufts, including Boston.

“[In an] urban center [with] young people who are living interesting lives, I think calling it a bubble might give it too much credit,” Hopkins said. 

Stopka said he thinks that a larger student body may pose greater risks of increased positivity rates due to the greater number of people traveling from a variety of different communities and locations. However, he emphasized that prevention measures are still key to stopping the spread, among undergraduate student populations both as small as Tufts’ 6,000 and as large as UMass Amherst’s 24,000. 

“The public health measures that are put in place are paramount,” Stopka said. “And if Tufts versus UMass Amherst has similar vaccine policies and similar testing policies, then you should be able to achieve similar success.”

Lover said he believes that the comparison between smaller and larger universities has a lot to do with the proportion of on-campus students compared to those who live off campus. He compared Amherst College, with its small student body that lives almost entirely on campus, with larger universities like the University of Connecticut or UMass Amherst, with larger student bodies and more students that live off campus. When more students live on campus, the administration has more control over the population and is able to easily impose guidelines or structure activities.

Hopkins believes that university guidelines have fostered in students a motivation to practice taking care of others by having them wear masks and get vaccinated to protect vulnerable groups.

“There’s more and more discussion about how this [pandemic] is telling [us about] who we are,” Hopkins said. “So while college students, most of the time, if they get COVID, will be fine, by putting these measures in place for [at-risk] people … how we rally together and what we do to protect elders and to protect those [who are] vulnerable is so important.”