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State to head up contact tracing at Boston College amid COVID-19 outbreak

Epidemiologists, students, and neighbors have expressed alarm and anxiety over the number of cases emerging from the campus.

Epidemiologists have expressed alarm over Boston College’s apparent outbreak. The college has had a total of 115 positive cases since Aug. 16, though many have come in recent days.
Epidemiologists have expressed alarm over Boston College’s apparent outbreak. The college has had a total of 115 positive cases since Aug. 16, though many have come in recent days.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

The state said Tuesday that it will take the lead in contact tracing at Boston College amid growing skepticism on campus about the school’s testing regimen, which is less rigorous than at some other local universities, and concern that the the school is not equipped to control the spread of COVID-19.

This week, a state group of contact tracers, set up earlier this year to help cities and towns track and isolate the spread of the virus, will take the lead in tracking down cases among students, faculty, and staff at the college, said Tory Mazzola, a spokesman for state’s COVID-19 Command Center.

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The unprecedented move is an effort to “more effectively” coordinate tracing work among Newton, Brookline, and Boston, which surround BC, and ensure that the state’s infection rate remains low, Governor Charlie Baker said Tuesday. The college will collaborate with the state.

Students, staff, parents, and local politicians have grown increasingly worried that the college cannot effectively contain the virus’s spread.

Allston Brighton City Councilor Liz Breadon on Tuesday said BC needs to develop a much more robust testing operation or else move all courses online, at least for a few weeks. She pointed to the Biogen conference in February in Boston where around 100 people were infected; the gathering was ultimately the source of around 20,000 cases, researchers later determined.

“I’m trying to hold their feet to the fire and insist that they need to take this situation very seriously. The universities don’t live in a bubble,” Breadon said.

BC is not testing students nearly as often as other universities, even students with high-contact campus jobs. While many local institutions are testing students once or twice a week, BC tested them upon arrival, and only sporadically after that. Some students with symptoms say they’ve had a hard time getting tested. And some faculty are worrying about the safety of teaching in person.

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Meanwhile, the university, which has blamed the outbreak on undergraduates failing to observe social distancing also seems to be taking a lax approach to enforcing those norms in daily campus life. The dining hall is open and students sit together inside in large groups, students said. Sports teams continue to practice. Dormitories are largely full, with as many as eight students living together in suites. Students continue to leave campus to socialize in apartments and neighborhood bars, students said.

Sam Levinson, 33, a chemistry doctoral student and a member of the Boston College Graduate Employees Union’s bargaining committee, said the university is blaming the spike in cases on undergraduates, instead of considering that its procedures fell short of a safe reopening.

“It’s not the undergraduates' fault,” Levinson said. “You shouldn’t have to fight for a COVID test.”

BC’s administration defended its approach to testing and tracing, pointing out that the number of positive cases has declined from a daily high of 22 on Sept. 8 to five on Tuesday. Most of the spike in cases was tied to two off-campus gatherings where students failed to wear masks or practice distancing, the university said. BC has had a total of 115 positive cases since Aug. 16, though many have come in the past week.

Those students had mild symptoms, and BC officials were quickly able to identify through contact tracing others who attended the gatherings, school officials said.

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Jack Dunn, a BC spokesman, said dorms are less full this semester because of travel restrictions and students who have chosen to remain home. He said the dining hall plan spaces groups of six students 6 feet apart, in accordance with local health guidelines.

Dunn said students are instructed to call University Health Services if they are symptomatic and will be given a same-day appointment to be tested. The college also tests approximately 1,500 randomly selected students per week and last week ramped up to nearly 3,000.

Last week the school sent an e-mail to all students, faculty, and staff explaining details of the testing program. The school’s focus is still on “targeted surveillance” and rapid testing of students identified through contact tracing, the e-mail said, but it has the ability to increase its testing volume as needed.

“We have adopted more aggressive targeted surveillance testing due to positive cases, and we will continue to make adjustments as necessary throughout the semester in an effort to keep the campus community healthy and safe,” the e-mail said.

But students who’ve had trouble getting tested despite having symptoms are bewildered by the problems they’ve encountered.

Francesca Lynch woke up on Monday with a mild sore throat, a bit of nausea, a headache, and fatigue. She eventually obtained a test after being initially turned away twice. Now she is in isolation awaiting her results.

“The way that they are handling the whole thing is absolutely ridiculous,” she said.

Tommy Merida, a first-year student from Lynn, said he reported symptoms last Tuesday via the health screening website that students are required to visit daily. He said he reported a sore throat, cough, congestion, a headache, and runny nose.

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Merida said he received a red X on the screen, signaling he needed to be tested. He said he called health services three times and there was no answer. He eventually received a test the following Monday, but not until after his roommate also got sick. Both tested negative, but Merida worries the delays he experienced could be dangerous for someone with the virus.

“The whole dorm could have COVID and we wouldn’t even know it,” he said.

Students who work as resident assistants and in dining services, whose jobs require in-person interactions with others on campus, said assurances over the summer to test them weekly have evaporated. Since they’ve been on campus, they’ve only been tested occasionally, as part of BC’s spot checks, or if they’ve insisted upon additional testing, they said.

Ally, a sophomore, quit her job in dining services this past week because of her fears about the working conditions. Although all the workers wore masks, four to seven of them stood nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, mixing hundreds of salad bowls for to-go orders in a small alley-like station.

“The only reason I took the job is I thought I would be tested weekly,” said Ally, who declined to give her last name for fear she won’t be rehired for another campus job.

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Even after that shift, she said, she had to push hard to get a test; her results were negative.

Dunn, the BC spokesman, said resident assistants and dining service workers are being tested routinely and some have been tested multiple times since the start of school. But Dunn did not say why those “high contact” students were not being tested weekly as the university originally communicated in e-mails to families.

As for students and staff working in close quarters in the dining areas, Dunn said the university has reminded everybody to observe public health guidelines, such as mask-wearing and social distancing.

Steve Murray, 23, a senior and a resident assistant, said he has been pleased with the frequency of his testing. He has been tested twice since coming to campus in mid-August and is scheduled to give another swab sample on Wednesday.

“It has been sufficient,” Murray said. “I know a lot of us want to stay here and experience the school year in person with our professors and our friends.”

As cases rise, though, some faculty members said they are being left in the dark when students in their in-person classes test positive. Many have said that they felt pressure to return to campus and that getting permission to teach online this fall was difficult.

In video conference calls Monday with department members, a growing number of faculty questioned whether it was safe for them and their families to continue teaching in-person, said Brinton Lykes, a psychology professor at BC’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development.

Lykes, who is over 65, received an exemption from BC to teach her graduate students remotely.

Faculty, she said, "are concerned about their students, particularly those living on campus in the Brighton and Newton communities, concerned about the BC staff who are on campus everyday, and the Newton and Boston communities.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz. Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.