Contact tracing turns up no connection between new COVID-19 cases, administrators say


Cho Yin Rachel Lo

Students cross the intersection of Boylston St. and Tremont St.

By Charlie McKenna

Emerson administrators do not believe the sharp spike in positive coronavirus tests on campus since Monday is a result of a case cluster or community spread. 

Contact tracing efforts revealed no links between the 12 positive cases reported on Monday and Tuesday, Assistant Vice President for Campus Life and “COVID Lead” Erik Muurisepp told The Beacon. Ten of the positives came from tests administered Monday. 

“At this point in time, [the cases] do not appear to be related,” Muurisepp said in a phone interview. “If we believed that there were connections, or there were concerns for in the classroom experience, or any residence hall cluster, or a dining cluster, or anything like that, we would take the appropriate action that was needed.” 

The positive tests were likely a result of spread somewhere in Boston, he said. Massachusetts has reached a second wave of COVID-19—the state reported 2,744 new cases Wednesday, close to the number of cases reported at the virus’ peak in April. Hospitalizations are surging as well, with 855 reported Wednesday, compared to 311 Oct. 18. 

The surge in Emerson cases led administrators to cancel all non-academic in-person activities, including student organization meetings, through the end of the semester. In-person courses will continue as scheduled through Wednesday, when most students head home for Thanksgiving. Muurisepp said officials made the decision after learning the new cases were not a result of classroom spread.

“The classroom experience is not one that we are concerned about,” he said. “For exposure, the way that the rooms have been set up and the diligence paid there for faculty to make sure they’re adhering to that, students adhering to [mask wearing]… It’s those other meetings and other gatherings that become more concerning for potential exposure. So it’s where we felt it would be smart to move in that direction, and not allow those other gatherings.” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quantify the risk of infection in an in-person learning model like Emerson’s as “some to medium.”

Nancy Allen, a professor in the Marlboro Institute who teaches a course on infectious disease, says she has been awaiting a surge in Emerson’s cases since the beginning of the semester. The decision to end in-person activities was a necessary measure, she said.

The twelve students who tested positive Monday or Tuesday will not be able return home for Thanksgiving. The 25 students in quarantine as of Wednesday, who were identified as close contacts of those who tested positive, may also have their travel plans disrupted. Muurisepp said those in quarantine would remain in college housing through Dec. 2, while those in isolation would remain through Nov. 27.

“Students can’t travel while in those categories… for a quarantined student, we could look at having them transit via private vehicle,” he said.  

Those students will stay in the Paramount Center residence hall, along with other non-infected or exposed students who may be staying on campus over the break.

“We’re not at that breaking point yet, I guess if you want to call it that,” he said. “But we would also monitor that if we needed to make that adjustment. There’s still capacity in Paramount for quarantine and isolation and our plans for this Thanksgiving winter break.” 

Coronavirus cases have ticked up at other local colleges in recent weeks. Northeastern reported its second-highest daily positivity rate on Nov. 8, while Boston University reported its single highest total of new infections on Nov. 1. The state’s higher education positivity rate has risen this month as well from 0.12 percent to 0.34 percent. Department of Public Health data shows the number of positive cases amongst colleges rose to 566 the week of Nov. 10—up from 362 cases the week prior and 175 at the end of October. 

Allen, who holds a masters degree in public health from Tufts University, said her students were worried on Wednesday. Many told her they would not attend in person classes out of caution.

Ten of the 12 new positives at Emerson came on Monday, the college’s dashboard revealed. Muurisepp’s email to the community Wednesday afternoon said that four of the positive tests came from on-campus students, four from off-campus students, one from a faculty member, and one from a food vendor. 

Previously, the college has refrained from providing any identifying details of those who test positive. Officials were more transparent about the new cases so community members would not be overly concerned, Muurisepp said. 

“We wanted to make sure we could share as much information as possible,” he said. “We felt like it was important to be able to clarify for folks [because] we don’t want panic. There’s no need for panic. There’s no need for a rash decision.”

Any changes to college protocol would be made based on any new details related to the cases.

“Our commitment, obviously, is to the academic experience,” he said. “We wouldn’t just say, you know, we’re shutting down and moving out. We would move to remote, we’d say, okay, if we had to isolate or quarantine an entire building or a floor, we could do that as well. So those are a lot of the potential levers that we would pull on a case by case basis as we got that data from Tufts and the Broad [the institute responsible for processing tests from Emerson and several other area schools].”

Andrew Brinker contributed reporting