After the number of COVID-19 cases ballooned from 149 to 371 in the first two weeks of classes, University of Massachusetts Amherst administrators said they would undertake surveillance testing of some residence halls and social organizations.
But they don’t plan to regularly test all students, staff, and faculty, saying a team of public health experts deemed it unnecessary because nearly 97 percent of the campus is vaccinated.
“We don’t think it’s necessary or appropriate for our campus at this time to go back to mandatory testing for all students,” Steve Goodwin, the university’s deputy chancellor and chief planning officer, said Thursday.
Administrators said breakthrough cases were to be expected on the campus of nearly 30,000 students, staff, and faculty, and the vaccine has kept serious illness at bay. Only one student has been hospitalized so far this semester, and is now home recovering well, according to the university.
The university’s positivity rate, 4.2 percent, is significantly higher than the 2.3 percent statewide positivity rate. In their most recent weekly totals, the state’s other large universities reported fewer cases; Boston University had 109, and Northeastern University, 93, according to their respective websites.
UMass administrators blamed off-campus bar hopping and partying for driving the outbreak. About four out of five of the students who contracted the virus live off-campus, the university reported.
Last weekend, university officials canceled the first tailgate of the 2021 football season with “risk in mind,” but that didn’t prevent students from holding a massive party in a jam-packed quad at an off-campus apartment complex.
Videos posted on social media showed hundreds of maskless students crammed together, dressed for game day, with captions that read: “They may take our tailgates, but they can never take our freedom!”
Meanwhile some students, staff, and neighboring residents are calling on UMass to adopt a more aggressive testing regime. UMass Amherst is one of the only universities in the state that does not require mandatory weekly testing, instead, it encourages testing for those who may have been exposed to COVID-19 or who are experiencing symptoms.
Failure to require regular testing is “a mistake,” said Dr. David Hamer, an infectious disease specialist at Boston University. “Active surveillance should be performed at least weekly, if not twice weekly.”
The outbreak at UMass Amherst is “a pretty small fraction given the size of the population,” Hamer said. “But it is concerning.”
Some neighboring residents worry about the larger health impacts for the surrounding community.
”We would like to see a comprehensive surveillance testing of all students in a regular cadence,” Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said Friday.
”Our community is relatively small, we’re in the same fish tank, so at some point what happens at the university has a direct impact on the town of Amherst,” Bockelman said, adding that many students live off-campus, and work in local stores and restaurants.
”[UMass] had an incredible testing operation set up [last year], it was just the envy of many other universities throughout the country,” Bockelman said. “So they know how to do it.”
Paula Rodriguez, of Beverley, would be a sophomore at UMass Amherst, but she withdrew a few days into the semester because, she said, she didn’t feel that her health was a priority to the university.
”I felt like I was thrown into a big pond and it was just like ‘figure it out,’” Rodriguez said in a phone interview Friday. “But it’s the university’s responsibility to use its power to implement rules and make options for people who are high risk. And they didn’t do that.”
Rodriguez, who spent her limited time on campus avoiding the dining hall and other congregate settings, said she found out just days before coming to campus that quarantine housing was limited. If she tested positive, she’d have to leave. With an immunocompromised brother at home, that wasn’t an option. When she contacted deans and staff members about her concerns, they didn’t take her seriously, she said.
“I just wanted my life back,” said Rodriguez who planned to study psychology and art. “Last year, being online depressed me a lot. I thought being in person, I’d be able to find myself again.”
Jonathan “Sam” Stern, a graduate student studying computer science, said he’s avoided campus except for one lecture because of the outbreak. He said administrators, rather than blaming students for irresponsible off-campus behavior, should reassess its safety protocols.
“While I have seen and heard of unsafe behavior, I think the culpability relies solely on the administration,” Stern said.
Maxwell Zeff, assistant op/ed editor of the Daily Collegian, the campus newspaper, also advocated for mandatory, weekly COVID-19 testing in the paper’s Sept. 6 edition.
Without it, “we won’t know if we have a problem until it’s too late,” Zeff wrote.
In a telephone interview Friday, Zeff said the testing regime last year “gave our community invaluable data to be able to make decisions campus-wide and for people’s personal decisions.”
Last spring, when classes were largely remote, a state of emergency was still in force across Massachusetts, and only 5,400 students lived on campus, UMass Amherst tested students regularly.
A COVID-19 spike of 398 active cases caused a strict campus lockdown, and students were required to remain in their residence halls, and university officials cancelled sporting events and practices.
The current campus’ COVID-19 problem, according to university officials, isn’t in academic settings; it’s the result of students’ failure to wear masks and to social distance at off-campus parties, bars, and other social gatherings.
Faculty and students have criticized the university for a lack of clear policies relating to off-campus gatherings and social distancing.
The university’s interim pandemic policy does not mention off-campus gatherings or social distancing.
University officials this week urged students to continue to mask up, social distance, get vaccinated and tested for free on campus, and to enable a smart phone app called MassNotify, a new contact tracing tool from the state Department of Public Health designed to alert users who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
In the first week of the fall semester, Sept. 1 through 7, UMass Amherst reported 149 cases — three staff, 19 students on campus, and 127 students off-campus.
In the second week, Sept. 8 through 14, the university reported 371 cases — 11 staff, 68 students on campus, and 292 students off-campus.
Nearby Pelham resident Maia Porter, mother of a sixth- and eighth-graders in the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District, said the outbreak at UMass Amherst is of particular concern to parents with children younger than 12 with pre-existing conditions who aren’t yet eligible to get vaccinated.
“It seems like the leadership has abrogated its responsibility to the community, substituting risk management for magical thinking,” Porter said. “Their planning for the fall was inadequate, and this latest outbreak is the result.”