High positivity rate at Emerson not cause for concern, college official says


Photo: Tomas Gonzalez

A student walks in the snow on Boylston Street

By Charlie McKenna

With in-person courses officially underway this week, the pandemic appears to have taken a firmer grip on the Boston campus in less than a month than it did over the course of the entire fall semester.

As of publication, Emerson has reported 53 positive COVID-19 tests this spring over the course of three-and-a-half weeks of testing. In the fall, the college reported 60 positives in total over nearly four months of testing.

The surge comes just weeks after cases nationwide and in Massachusetts hit record highs. In late December, the state reported more than 7,000 new cases on back-to-back days, each setting records. Cases are now on the decline, falling below 2,000 in Massachusetts for the first time in more than two months Tuesday.

Assistant Vice President for Campus Life Erik Muurisepp, who serves as the college’s “COVID Lead,” said the college always anticipated a rise in positives this semester considering the state of the pandemic as compared to the fall.

“In this new environment of high positivity across the board, it is to be expected,” Muurisepp said. “So that’s where I think other institutions are seeing it, other cities are seeing it, and our city certainly is seeing it as well. And there’s new variants that do seem to be… more transmissible, and so that is obviously of concern. We need to treat that as if those strains are already around, that could be also why they’re seeing more of those spikes.”

In the fall, Massachusetts was averaging approximately 300 new coronavirus cases a day, and had progressed to Phase Three, Step Two of its reopening. The state now sits in Phase Three, Step One.

The 53 positives reported thus far during the spring come from 10,832 tests administered at Emerson’s testing site, a Tufts Medical Center facility. At the conclusion of the first week of in-person courses in the fall, Emerson had reported 10 positives out of the 9,509 tests administered. The spring’s test positivity rate of .49 is nearly five times higher than the rate at this time in the fall, .1 percent.

On Wednesday, the college reported 10 new positive tests from the 1,702 administered on Feb. 2. In the fall, the college canceled all non-academic in-person activities after reporting 10 new positives in one day with just one week left in the semester. In November, Muurisepp sent an email announcing the surge to the community; in the spring, no such communication has materialized.

Muurisepp said the college has not observed any “concerning patterns” in the spread of the virus amongst the community thus far.

“We would communicate if we felt there were concerning patterns that we’re seeing or anything like that, and we’re not seeing that,” he said. “What we’re seeing is, unfortunately, a [positivity rate] of just under 4 percent [in the state]—luckily it’s gone down significantly. We’re seeing a city that is at 6.2 percent and so… I guess we’re in that new normal.”

It took until Nov. 15 for the college to reach 32 positive tests. In the spring, Emerson hit that marker in two-and-a-half weeks.

Muurisepp said the college is not considering sending students home or shifting courses online for the duration of the semester, but could re-implement a “stay-at-home” order where courses would be temporarily shifted online for students as a way to limit the spread of the virus.

The college knew it was going to take time to rebuild what Muurisepp dubbed “the Emerson bubble,” he said, which is why the college implemented the “soft quarantine” for the first two weeks of the semester. The soft quarantine involved online classes and asking students not to leave their rooms except for essential tasks.

“We know it was going to take a little bit of time to rebuild the Emerson bubble, I think that’s what we’re seeing,” he said. “That’s what we’re experiencing, we’re seeing positives, we’re responding to positives quickly, contact tracing is working, we can identify any folks that are in close contacts of others, get them isolated, quarantined, and tested—and that will still take some time as we rebuild that bubble.”

Muurisepp said the college anticipates the rate at which community members are testing positive to slow down as the semester progresses, so long as safety protocols like mask-wearing and social distancing are followed.

“We never know 100 percent, but if we’re looking at projections we should start seeing things decline,” he said. “That is only if folks are following all the protocols. If we don’t adhere to those really important practices, the numbers aren’t going to go down.”