Positive tests at Emerson soar ahead of in-person classes


Diti Kohli

Emerson’s testing site is located at a Tufts Medical Center facility on the corner of Harrison Ave. and Kneeland St.

By Charlie McKenna

Emerson reported five new positive COVID-19 tests Friday, pushing the total number of positives reported since the spring semester began to 36, and the total across both fall and spring semester testing to 96. 

The rash of positives is nearly two-thirds of the total reported over the entirety of the fall semester but on a fraction of the tests. The 36 reported thus far in the spring have come on 6,893 tests—a positivity rate of .52 percent. Between Aug. 6 and Dec. 20, the college conducted 51,021 tests and uncovered 60 positive tests, a .12 percent positivity rate.

But, that figure does not paint the fullest picture of the arc of the virus’s spread amongst the community in the fall. 

The week of Nov. 22 brought 16 positive tests, the highest mark in any week during the fall. In the ensuing three weeks of testing, Emerson reported four positive tests each week—pushing the total over the last month of fall semester testing to 28. The positivity rate for that monthly period was .38 percent.

Before Nov. 16, the college reported 32 positives out of 43,710 tests—a positivity rate of .07 percent. That rate then rose to the .12 percent figure by the conclusion of the semester. 

Now, Emerson’s positives are soaring. Last week, the college reported 14 positive tests—at the time, the second-highest figure of any week across both the fall and spring semesters. With just three days of testing reported this week as a result of the up to 48-hour processing window, the college reported 17 new positive tests of the 2,574 administered, the highest figure of any week during the spring and fall semesters. 

With 36 positives reported thus far this semester, of the 6,893 tests administered, the college’s positivity rate sits at .52 percent. In the fall, on the same volume of tests administered thus far in the spring, the positivity rate never surpassed .5 percent. 

The last month of fall semester testing coupled with the first two and a half weeks of the spring amounts to 64 positives out of 14,204 tests—a positivity rate of .45 percent. That period accounts for two-thirds of the positives reported over the course of the testing program. 

College administrators maintain reopening is safe, despite the surging positive tests, asserting that the positive tests are isolated instances that are not connected to one another. Muurisepp, who also serves as the college’s “COVID Lead”, said the cases have all been identified through the college’s baseline testing program. 

“Most of the cases, as to be expected, have all been caught in baseline testing,” he said. “[It’s] people coming to campus already positive.”

 Muurisepp said he’s confident the protective measures they have in place will insulate the campus from the virus.

 “I would go back to everything we know that works, that’s why it’s critical to wear proper face coverings, that is why it’s critical that folks are keeping distance, avoiding gatherings,” Assistant Vice President for Campus Life Erik Muurisepp said. “The classroom experience and the on-campus experience is safe, it’s when everyone congregates in apartments or off-campus or social gatherings, restaurants, things like that, that exposes and increases the risk.”

In November, when the college reported 12 new positives overnight, all non-academic in-person activities were canceled. Now, campus spaces have been reverted to room capacities set in place at the start of the semester thanks to the city’s progressed reopening to Phase Three Step One. 

The ten overnight positives reported in November came alongside information about the identities of each of the positive tests. Emerson reported they came from four on-campus students, four off-campus students, one faculty member, and one staff member. Now, in the spring with the flood of positives, the college still declines to distinguish between staff, faculty, and students in its data. 

In October, the college offered an explanation as to why there is no distinction on the dashboard between different members of the Emerson community.

“Rather than separate out students, faculty, and staff, as some schools do, Emerson’s dashboard displays test results for all community members, which is reflective of our unified and tight-knit community,” a statement from Assistant Vice President for Communications and Marketing Sofiya Cabalquinto said. 

Both Northeastern University and Boston University separate staff, faculty, and student testing on their COVID-19 dashboards. 

The surge at Emerson comes during residential move in—where thousands of students have flocked back to downtown Boston from every corner of the country, and as new, more infectious variants of COVID-19 are beginning to be uncovered in the U.S. 

Coronavirus cases in the U.S. are on the decline from their record peaks following the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. In Massachusetts, cases hit record highs following the Christmas holiday—topping 7,000 twice before falling to a daily average of approximately 3,000. However, the variants pose the risk of reigniting the pandemic. 

In Massachusetts, officials have identified three cases of B.1.1.7—the variant first discovered in the United Kingdom—which is believed to be at least 50 percent more transmissible than the strains of the virus currently spreading, and could become the dominant strain in the U.S. as soon as March. 

Other area schools have seen their positive tests level off after similar winter surges. Northeastern University is averaging nine positive tests a day over the last seven days, on a significantly higher volume of tests—approximately 6,000 a day. Boston University has uncovered 113 positives on the 34,069 tests administered over the past week—a positivity rate of .33 percent. 

The state reports a positivity rate of higher education testing only, which currently sits at .4 percent, compared to .1 percent in September, when the fall semester commenced. 

Dana Gerber contributed reporting