Boston College raced to contain an outbreak of COVID-19 Friday, as furious students and neighbors expressed fears for their health and a prominent epidemiologist questioned whether the school is doing enough testing.
“It’s very hard to put the genie back in the bottle,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, chief of the infectious disease division at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Now they are on a massive chase, and time is not on their side.”
Between Aug. 16 and Sept. 9, the campus reported 81 undergraduates testing positive — more than half this past week.
The situation appears to have all the indications of a perfect COVID-19 storm in the making. Interviews with students, parents, and neighbors indicate infrequent testing of students and staff, weak contact tracing, and scant communication with the campus and neighborhood. Many students said they learned of a cluster among the swimming and diving teams through news reports Thursday.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Friday that Boston College’s COVID safety protocols were supposed to catch outbreaks like this one.
“We’re not in a crisis moment yet but we do have to watch these . . . pop-ups," the mayor said, speaking on the “Boston Public Radio” show on GBH. "Those bring great concern to me and to the city.”
Boston College has been testing its community far less frequently than many other area universities, with Boston University, Northeastern University, and others testing all on-campus students at least twice a week.
At BC, students were tested when they arrived on campus. Since then, the university has been spot testing asymptomatic people. BC’s plan called for testing about 1,500 community members weekly. It said about 7,300 undergraduates live on campus.
"I don’t care if you’re the president of the United States or the president of Boston College, the bottom line is, we need more testing,'' said Mike Russo, the father of two BC students, one of whom is in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19, the other quarantining because of his exposure to infected students.
The brothers, both juniors, had socialized with members of the swimming and diving team before one tested positive. Because they live off campus, their father said, they have received no support from the school.
“BC brought all these kids back to school,” Russo said. “They should be taking responsibility for them.”
Anxiety has been rising among students on campus as well. Last Saturday, a student who works as a lifeguard was on duty when members of the swimming and diving team were in the BC pool. Team members first reported feeling ill Monday and began testing positive for COVID-19 Tuesday. But in an interview, the lifeguard said no one alerted her and other lifeguards about the outbreak and she first learned about it by reading a Globe story late Wednesday. She asked not to be identified out of fear of reprisals.
What’s more, the lifeguard said, BC informed student employees at the pool they would be tested weekly to help ensure their safety. But she said she was first denied a test Thursday and then finally managed to obtain one Friday.
The lifeguard complained in a letter to administrators Thursday, but said no one had responded to her by Friday. She said she no longer feels safe at the pool and plans to give up her job, though she needs the income.
“BC is an institution that I assumed would care about its students, but it seems like they’re struggling right now to find a plan to make students safe, or they never really had a plan in place that was feasible,” the lifeguard said.
She and other students said they considered it unfair and potentially harmful that football players and other athletes were receiving weekly tests, but the general student body was not. Numerous students who have been back on campus for more than two weeks said in interviews they have been tested only once, upon arrival.
One student said eight others in his dorm who are not athletes tested positive this week for COVID-19. The student, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, said he was disturbed to find himself standing in line at a sandwich shop off campus Friday behind a member of the swimming and diving team. He had presumed all team members would be in isolation.
Walensky, the MGH epidemiologist, said BC has to significantly ramp up its testing, expand contact-tracing, and ensure that those who need to be in isolation are not spreading the illness.
It’s hard to tell how large the outbreak at BC might be, Walensky said, or even whether the campus needs to temporarily shut down or other more severe measures taken.
BC has previously said its testing wasn’t as frequent as BU’s and Northeastern’s because its campus is less densely populated. But this week it boosted testing, conducting 2,500 tests, with additional tests Friday afternoon, said Jack Dunn, a spokesman.
“The increase in testing was not triggered exclusively by the cluster, but rather is part of our strategy to aggressively test students who are identified through contact tracing and target the residence halls and off-campus apartments where the positive cases have occurred,” Dunn said.
The president of BC’s undergraduate student government, Christian Guma, has led a campaign called #KeepTheHeightsHome, to promote health and safety amid the pandemic. “You can never get comfortable because of how rapidly things change, but we need to continue as a student body to really look out for each other," he said Friday.
Emily Pollock, 21, a junior from Pennsylvania, said she’d like to hear more from the university about the outbreak or what it’s doing to contain the spread.
“It feels a little bit that we’re being left in the dark,” Pollock said.
The college sent a note to students Friday evening reminding them of safety protocols, but it did not specifically mention the swim team outbreak. An “increase in positive COVID-19 cases this week,” the school said, was largely attributable to students interacting within 6 feet of each another without masks, and warned the increase “has put us at risk and jeopardized the successful semester that we have all worked hard to achieve.”
Madeline Bockus, a senior who lives on campus, said she and her five roommates are more fearful of interacting with others.
Bockus said she has been tested twice so far, while one roommate has been tested just once since she moved in. Her roommates have begun to wonder why students at other universities are tested more frequently.
“We kind of don’t want to leave [the dorm], especially after hearing the news about the increase,” she said. “I’m probably more worried than I was originally.”
BC, like many colleges in the Boston area, is providing isolation housing only for students who live on-campus. Off-campus students must isolate in their apartments or private residences, and university health officials do check-ins routinely. (Tufts, by contrast, encourages off-campus student to come special housing it installed for isolation.)
“We have confidence that students living on or off campus will abide by our quarantine and isolation protocols,” Dunn said.
But BC neighbors are not reassured.
Diana Weiske, who lives less than a mile from campus, is angry the school has not communicated to neighbors about its plan to prevent outbreaks, despite BC students living in her condo complex, sharing hallways and washing machines with neighbors.
She wants more frequent testing of students — at least once a week — more communication with neighbors, and quarantining of any students who test positive on campus, regardless of where they live.
“They’re falling far short of their responsibility to both their students, their staff, their faculty and the community at large,” she said.