Guest columnists Robin Jaffin and Susan Jahoda: A message for Amherst, UMass: ‘What’s it going to take’

  • UMass campus in June, 2020.

Published: 9/29/2020 11:29:20 AM

So, what is it going to take for UMass and the town of Amherst to finally move beyond the “education-and-encouragement”-only approach as a way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19? Thirteen adult students testing positive after a party that was not shut down while it was going on? Twenty-five? Fifty?

Having attended both the UMass Amherst COVID forum and the District One Neighborhood Association (DONA) meeting online where UMass and town representatives laid out the programs that they have put into place to keep adult students from engaging in behaviors that potentially increase the spread of the coronavirus into our community, we have listened carefully to what they feel is working. And we have heard what they hope to roll out over the coming weeks.

You will hear about COVID ambassadors who will hand out masks and provide education and information to those not following the mask-wearing guidelines in downtown; a new Amherst Police Department puppy named Winston who will accompany a community outreach person who is going door to door with educational information for off-campus students; health department discussions with landlords of student rentals; and a hotline answering machine where you can leave questions or concerns about COVID related matters — including reports of large parties with unmasked adults not social distancing.

You will hear about the contact tracing efforts that the town and university undertake after a student tests positive. And the follow up to ensure that the student is quarantining either on or off campus. You will hear about the success of efforts at Puffer’s Pond, where they set up a presence to educate and enforce adherence to mitigation measures.

You will hear about the truly exceptional asymptomatic testing program the university has set up with the essential assistance of the School of Nursing. The testing numbers are impressive, there is no doubt. Though when pressed, the university cannot tell you how many of the total number of off-campus students are actually reporting for those tests twice a week, because they do not know how many students are living off campus in the area.

You will hear about the Student Registry where students can register their parties and if a call is made to complain about the party, the registered student will be given a courtesy call and 20 minutes to shut the party down and clear everyone out.

What’s missing in all this is the protection of our community from the possibility of COVID spread from an active party, enforcement of existing mandates and consequences for breaching those mandates. You can look at the UMass COVID-19 testing dashboard and see that 99% of the positive tests are off-campus students. One can assume this is possibly the tip of an iceberg.

The university and the town have been asked in writing and on the forum and DONA meeting why is there nothing in place that would result in a real-time response to an active party going on?

Currently all efforts are either pre- or post-party — and focus almost solely on “education.” None of this effort is occurring during a party, nor does it focus on prevention of virus spread or consequences. It makes the most sense to almost everyone — except for the town and UMass — to take action during the actual party to actively protect the health and safety of our community. This means enforcing the mandate and the University Community Agreement that the adult students hosting and attending the party signed and are actively breaching.

A perfect example occurred last Friday in North Amherst. A large party started in the late afternoon with more adult students than the state (25) and university mandates (10) for outdoor gathering. For all who drove by it, it was clear those attending the party were not wearing masks or social distancing in what was a “flip of the bird,” if you will.

The call that was made to the police about the party was futile, because unless you live next door or in the vicinity to the party you cannot make a noise complaint that will be responded to. Apparently four people called the COVID Response Line that evening with a complaint about this party, according to the woman who calls you back the next day. The party went on unabated until late in the evening.

The opportunity for intervention to ensure that the community is protected against further spread of the virus that this gathering presented was yet again lost. Protecting the community could have been achieved by stopping the party, and gathering the information necessary for requiring that the adults at the party get tested at UMass within 24 hours and to quarantine until then so as to not potentially further expose the community.

But the message these adult students receive is there will be no consequences.

It is our opinion that no amount of friendly visits from the COVID team or ambassadors, or later testing, will make up for the fact that the party (or any large party) was allowed to go on — and that some of the attendees at the party likely went out into the community, possibly infecting their housemates and other friends, who in turn get to spread it further.

One can imagine only after a week or so out in the community — maybe attending other parties or gatherings — they go in and get tested and find out they are positive, a scenario the town describes on its website.

This all could have been contained if a town and university enforcement team showed up at the party when it was going on and made it clear that this is unacceptable behavior, that there are consequences and that they will have to now follow very strict procedures to ensure they do not spread the virus.

This might be a challenge to implement up front, but is it really impossible? One can bet it would result in achieving what it is meant to — protecting the community from potential COVID spread — far more effectively than what we have seen so far.

What is it going to take?

Robin Jaffin and Susan Jahoda live in Amherst.


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