Emerson sees 19 COVID-19 cases amid policy change

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Photo: Alec Klusza

COVID lead Erik Muurisepp sits at his desk on the fourth floor of the Walker Building.

By Adri Pray, Assistant Express News Editor

Emerson reported 19 positive COVID-19 tests on Wednesday, signifying an uptick in cases on campus and the highest single-day total since 31 cases were reported Jan. 21. 

The positive tests come from the 1,219 tests administered Tuesday, setting the daily positivity rate at 1.56 percent. Emerson also reported 17 community members in on-campus isolation. Zero were reported to be in on-campus quarantine. 

Those in quarantine may have been exposed to COVID-19 but aren’t experiencing symptoms. Those in isolation are symptomatic, have produced a positive test, or are “reasonably known to be infected,” according to the college. Off-campus students are not counted in the quarantine and isolation numbers.

For the week of Feb. 14 to Feb. 20, 3,815 COVID-19 tests were administered and 19 positives were detected, setting the weekly positivity rate at 0.50 percent. The positivity rate marked the fourth consecutive week below one percent, a feat unmatched since the Fall 2021 semester. As of Jan. 3, Emerson has reported 481 positive cases and administered 34,112 tests. The cumulative positivity rate sits at 1.41 percent.

Interim President William Gilligan and Associate Vice President for Campus Life and “COVID” Lead Erik Müürisepp released an update to the Boston campus’s COVID-19 guidelines Feb. 18. 

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The email announced a relaxed mandatory mask policy and deemed the campus “mask optional” for all fully vaccinated and boosted individuals outside of classroom spaces starting March 21 as COVID-19 cases continued to fall. They also relaxed the student guest policy, and began allowing fully vaccinated non-Emerson guests in residential spaces on Feb. 22.

“We’ve been making great progress thanks to everyone’s adherence to our policies and our protocols,” Muurisepp said. “We are having a really successful semester so far, all things considered where we were a month ago. Everything is pointing in the right direction, which makes it the right time to try to reduce some of our restrictions.”

Emerson students, faculty, and staff are still expected to test once a week, but if positive tests remain low, the college may consider a shift in policy later in the spring semester. Communal spaces will also be returned to their full pre-pandemic capacity.

Emerson’s loosened mask policy follows the state’s as Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker removed the mandate for fully vaccinated officials in indoor spaces unless they are part of an immunocompromised group. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, however, elected to keep the mandate in place, a decidedly rare split between the college and city.

“Throughout the Commonwealth, while there was never a mask mandate for the Commonwealth in recent times, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has changed our guidance,” said Müürisepp in an interview with The Beacon. “But within the Boston area, the mask mandate is still in place for indoor spaces. So we felt that we want to have testing for the next few weeks and after spring break, we could, based on how everything’s been going, start loosening up on the masks and have more of a masks optional policy.”

The state continued a downward trend of COVID-19 cases on Wednesday after 938 positive cases were reported for Tuesday—a daily positivity rate of 2.35 percent. The death toll rose to 133.

Hospitalizations also decreased as reported on Wednesday as the state reported 537, with 292 of these hospitalizations occurring in those who are fully vaccinated.

Massachusetts reported 11,009 new vaccinations—including boosters—from Tuesday to Wednesday, bringing the state’s total to 13,883,940 doses. Wednesday’s daily vaccination update reported that 5,278,536 Mass. residents— approximately 76 percent of the state’s population, according to Mass. Department of Health data—are fully vaccinated, meaning they have received both doses of the Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

Emerson’s email also announced the disbanding of the COVID-19 team over the course of the summer and the different academic departments will be allowed to consider their own COVID-19 protocols going forward.

“Those folks have given so much time and effort and energy and helped us be able to have in-person studying last year and a successful term this academic year, as well,” Müürisepp said. “But it’s also time to operationalize. We need to get departments thinking about what to do as a department of X, Y, or Z, and how they make that part of regular operations to not always be fully reliant on this COVID team.”

Müürisepp confirmed that the college “reserves the right” to reunite the COVID-19 team at any time in the future as the pandemic continues on.

“If we have to adjust our practices on masking, if we need to go back to being required across campus, if we need to increase testing frequency, all of those sorts of things, we certainly would always reserve the right to do that if we needed,” Müürisepp said.

The change in policy remains to be in place for the Boston campus exclusively. Müürisepp advises the Kasteel Well and Los Angeles campuses to continue to adhere to the COVID-19 policies put in place on their respective campuses.

“The state of the virus is very different in Los Angeles right now, as it is in the Netherlands and so Kasteel Well students and staff should listen to the guidance out there,” he said.

Recently, students at Kasteel Well reported a disorganized response to the COVID-19 cases on the satellite campus, including disoriented moving instructions for both infected and uninfected students and an overlap in the different isolation timelines, among other confusions.

“I work with them at the castle, but they have their own team that are working and Rob has been doing a phenomenal job of dealing with how they have handled the arrival of our students and the increased cases within the Netherlands but also certainly at the castle really well and maybe adjustments and necessary changes that they need to do,” Müürisepp said. “Certainly everything’s up to them at the end of the day.”

As spring break arrives next week, Müürisepp advised students to remain vigilant in their protection from the virus, as the goal is to not have to alter these policies, he said. 

“We still need to make sure we’re taking proper precautions, so folks are traveling, masking, avoiding areas and situations that might become risky for the virus, and then also the really important part of making sure they’re testing before arriving back to campus through a rapid test,” said Müürisepp.