As students pack college campuses once again, filling them to capacity for the first time since the start of the pandemic, some institutions have seen an early rise in positive cases of COVID-19 — the majority of which are breakthrough cases, since nearly all students are vaccinated.
The increases have worried administrators and prompted stricter protocols on certain campuses, but experts said they expected the early spike, and believe it will die down soon, as campuses implement the testing and tracing regimens that worked well last year. So far, no local schools have switched to virtual classes, and most have signaled they will avoid that at all costs.
“We all anticipated that there would be a lot of cases with people returning to campus,” said David Hamer, a doctor and infectious disease specialist at Boston University.
The state of Massachusetts now tracks the number of positive cases in higher education institutions statewide and reports numbers on its daily dashboard.
The positivity rate at colleges and universities, which proactively test students, staff, and faculty at least weekly, is still much lower than among the rest of the state’s population. The positivity rate on campuses is 0.29 percent compared to the state average of 4.16 percent for all tests in Massachusetts not performed on a college campus.
Most institutions also post their own daily or weekly case data on publicly available dashboards. In the past seven days, Northeastern reported 43 new cases, Boston University 9, Harvard University66. In Worcester, College of the Holy Cross reported 60.
UMass-Amherst, which reported 150 new cases this week, canceled the first tailgate of the 2021 football season this weekend to contain the virus’s spread.
Worcester Polytechnic Institute reported 103 new cases; the increaseprompted President Laurie Leshin to send two stern e-mails to students, urging them to curb off-campus gatherings and announcing more rigorous testing. She called the next two weeks “critical.”
“This is a ‘one for all, and all for one moment’ if there ever was one,” she wrote to students on Sept. 3.
Leshin’s note, much like notes sent by other colleges in the past week, said there is no evidence of on-campus transmission in classrooms, dorms or dining halls. The majority of cases arose from casual get-togethers off campus in apartments, at bars and restaurants, and with family, she wrote.
Her note also said that those who have become ill are experiencing mild symptoms, like congestion and fatigue.
In response to the spike, she announced that the campus would move back to individual PCR testing, a switch from the less-expensive pool testing, which is most effective only when there are very few positive cases.
The school also doubled the frequency of testing to twice a week for undergraduates.
Nearly all colleges are at full capacity this year, a welcome return for students after last year, when many lived alone in dorm rooms and took classes online. Most professors are again teaching in person, albeit wearing masks, to full classrooms.
What is different this year is that, since nearly all students on campuses in the Northeast are vaccinated, these are breakthrough cases, largely attributed to the Delta variant, which is much more easily transmitted.
Most of the cases at BU have been symptomatic but mild, said Hamer, the infectious disease expert.
Hamer said epidemiologists expect the case counts to drop as schools implement aggressive quarantine, isolation, and contact tracing procedures. Last year, colleges in the region were largely successful at preventing large outbreaks even as cases rose in the cities around them.
“My hope is that [combination of defense strategies] and continued active surveillance of what will probably be asymptomatic individuals will help identify any further cases before they extend too far,” he said.
Harvard College also recently increased the frequency of testing in response to a spike in cases. Undergraduates living on campus will now be tested three times a week, according to the school.
Two weeks ago, the university reported 94 positive cases, according to an e-mail sent to the campus from Giang T. Nguyen, executive director of Harvard University Health Services.
“This pandemic is not over,” he wrote. On Friday he sent another e-mail, asking students to keep their masks on, socialize in small groups, and stay current on testing.
He also asked them to follow the “quick sip rule,” re-covering your face between sips of a beverage, and asked them to dine in small parties and cover their faces when not actively eating.
At Holy Cross, the campus saw 25 positive cases in a few days at the start of the semester, all among students.
The school re-implemented several measures from last year, though administrators said they hope the restrictions will only be temporary. President Vincent D. Rougeau asked students to isolate at home if they live within 250 miles of the school, saying the school is running out of isolation and quarantine rooms.
They also extended an indoor mask mandate, increased testing to twice a week, moved large gatherings outdoors, and eliminated outside guests in the dorms.
The school warned it might have to limit gatherings if cases continue to rise.
“These restrictions are not what any of us wants, but we know that they work and they are necessary if we want to get back to the campus experience that we all hope for,” Rougeau wrote in an e-mail to the campus on Sept. 5.