UMass COVID spike tied to off-campus activities

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst campus GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/17/2021 5:57:36 PM

AMHERST — The University of Massachusetts Amherst is making changes to its COVID-19 testing strategy, and continuing to urge everyone to get vaccinated quickly, in response to a sharp spike in coronavirus cases connected to off-campus social events.

For the week of Sept. 8-14, the university reported 371 new cases of COVID-19. More than 30% of the total staff, student and faculty population was tested — 8,836 people — and 4.2% tested positive: 11 staff, 68 students living on campus and 292 students off campus, according to university data.

The total of new cases is about 2½ times the number from the previous week. The academic year started on Sept. 1, and 149 cases had been identified out of 3,863 tests by Sept. 7.

One in 10 unvaccinated people at the university have contracted COVID-19, and 1.7% of the vaccinated population has tested positive, the school said Friday.

UMass Amherst closed the tailgate lot outside the Sept. 11 football game against Boston College in an effort to keep unmasked students from gathering in crowded places. Images circulating on social media show that, on game day, hundreds of students gathered outside The Townehouse of Amherst apartments, many of them without masks.

Amy Becker and Jeffrey Hescock, co-directors of the university’s Public Health Promotion Center, wrote in a letter to the campus community Thursday that “positive cases continue to be predominately among undergraduate off-campus students connected to unmasked social activities. We have not seen any spread in academic settings.”

UMass Amherst spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said the school has implemented unobserved testing, which allows people to pick up self-test kits and drop them off at their own convenience, which contributed to the jump in tests performed.

“That has been a significant factor,” Blaguszewski said. “And, it takes a few weeks into the semester for everyone to know what the options are. … We really have been proactively encouraging people to test, through written communication, email messaging, social media, etc.”

Amherst officials have identified 321 active cases of COVID-19 in town, according to data released on Friday. It was not immediately clear if any of the UMass Amherst students were included in that total.

The 14-day case incidence rate in Amherst is 63.9, the fourth-highest rate for any municipality in Massachusetts. Only the Berkshire County towns of Otis and Sandisfield, and the Franklin County town of New Salem, had higher incidence rates, according to state public health data.

Testing, vaccine requirements

Becker and Hescock also wrote in their letter that adaptive testing will now begin, meaning that “selected students, for instance in particular residential areas or social groups, will be asked to come in for additional testing so public health officials can better understand the transmission of the virus in our community.”

The letter called the number of cases “significant” and “concerning,” but reported that “most cases continue to be of short duration resulting in mild-to-moderate illness.” There was one hospitalization last week, and the person is now recovering at home.

UMass Amherst requires all staff, students and faculty to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, with limited exceptions. So far, nearly 97% of the university population is vaccinated, but university health officials still expect breakthrough cases to occur.

Under university policy, only those with vaccine exemptions and those showing symptoms are required to be tested regularly for COVID-19. Schools with comparable population sizes, including Northeastern University and Boston University, require regular testing and vaccines for all and have reported fewer cases than UMass Amherst since the start of the year.

“UMass Amherst is following CDC and state health department guidelines. … Public health standards do not require individuals who are fully vaccinated to undergo routine COVID-19 screening tests,” Blaguszewski, the university spokesman, said. “We invested a lot of time, as we should have, on vaccinations, and vaccinations are the best, most effective defense against COVID-19.”

The Public Health Promotion Center offers free vaccines and testing. Vaccinations are available at the UMass Vaccine Clinic on the lower level of the Campus Center on a walk-in basis or by appointment.

“Our data shows that among our vaccinated population, only 1.7% have tested positive,” the letter reads. “Among the approximately 500 individuals who have received religious or medical exemptions from vaccination, 10.05% have tested positive. We urge those not yet vaccinated to consider doing so.”

The university also has an indoor mask mandate to fight the spread of the virus and has urged everyone to enable the MassNotify app on their cellphones, which will send a notification to those who have been identified through contact tracing as being exposed to the virus.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.


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