Unprecedented end-of-semester COVID surge brings highest case levels since onset of pandemic

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Photo: Zhihao Wu

Emerson’s COVID-19 testing center at the corner of Kneeland Street and Harrison Ave.

By Adri Pray and Gabriel Borges

Emerson has undergone an unprecedented surge in positive COVID-19 tests over the course of the past two weeks, racking up nearly 100 positives as statewide cases set records and the Omicron variant continues to rip through the nation. 

Before last week, Emerson had never eclipsed 26 positives in a single week of testing. The surge, which saw the college report a record 30 positive tests on Dec. 14, has brought Emerson’s semester-long total up to 212—the highest total reached for any pandemic-era semester. 

Emerson officials, in an email sent to the community on Dec. 14, said a number of cases had been tracked to a cluster resulting from social interactions. Associate Vice President for Campus Life and “COVID Lead” Erik Muurisepp said many of the positive tests linked to social interactions appear to be independent cases where the virus spread through the community.

“Just like everywhere outside Emerson, Boston area, country, cases are on the rise,” he said. “People need to make sure they’re taking precautions. Don’t forget to be masking and distancing and avoiding crowds and a lot of social interactions.”

The recent surge mirrors similar events at the conclusion of the fall semester in 2020, when Emerson shut down all non-academic campus activities before sending students home for Thanksgiving after reporting 12 positive tests across two days. At the time, those figures represented the highest totals seen by the college over the course of a two-day period. 

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College officials said they were unable to confirm whether or not the spread could be attributed to the Omicron variant of the virus, which experts believe is more contagious than previous variants. 

It is way too early on that,” Muurisepp said. “Sequencing for variants takes weeks. We will not know if it is within our tests for several weeks after sequencing, if sequencing is done through [the Broad Institute].”

The rise in positives at Emerson comes as statewide cases have skyrocketed to levels unseen since last winter, when almost no Massachusetts residents were vaccinated against COVID-19. On Wednesday, the state reported 7,817 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the highest single-day figure reported over the course of the pandemic. 

We have to be concerned,” Muurisepp said. “We can’t panic. We’re staying the course with what we’ve been doing. A new variant wouldn’t change that necessarily, but again, we follow the science.”

Dr. Jamie Lichtenstein, a senior affiliated faculty member at Emerson who studies epidemiology, said Omicron’s increased transmissibility leads to rapid, uncontrolled spread. 

“What we’re seeing on the ground is that translates into about a doubling of infection every two to three days,” Lichtenstein said. “If you had one hundred thousand infections from Omicron on Monday, by around Thursday, we would expect two hundred thousand infections.”

Lichtenstein said it’s difficult to tell if Omicron is causing the sudden spike at Emerson, but the college’s urban location makes it possible. 

“Emerson is something of a bubble, but it’s not a complete bubble,” she said. “Cases in the community are higher, the chance that someone’s going to get a breakthrough case is higher.”

Dr. Todd Ellerin, the director of infectious diseases at South Shore Hospital, said that the mutation of the Omicron variant should act as a warning and we should continue to vaccinate and mask as the pandemic continues.

“I will say that this is an important wake up call,” Ellerin said. “We need to vaccinate more. We need to boost more … we need to mask more, whether it’s Delta, whether it’s Omicron … and we need to develop [vaccines] as rapidly as possible.”

Officials at Northeastern University confirmed that they had identified Omicron on campus, as the university underwent a similar surge to that of Emerson. Between Dec. 13 and 17, Northeastern racked up more than 300 positive COVID-19 tests, despite nearly 100 percent of students being vaccinated. 

On Monday, Mayor Michelle Wu, and the mayors of several surrounding communities, imposed stricter vaccine requirements—requiring patrons to provide proof of vaccination at select indoor spaces including restaurants, movie theaters, and fitness centers. Wu said her decision was prompted by the rapid spread of Omicron. 

The requirement goes in effect on Jan. 15 for residents 12 and older, and residents between 5 and 11 on March 1.

As a result of the surge, Emerson will mandate all community members across the Boston, Los Angeles, and Kasteel Well campuses to receive a booster shot prior to returning for the spring semester. 

The decision to require the booster is important and we stand by it,” Muurisepp said. ”The data shows that the booster can help the vaccine and limit the severity of illness.”

“Get your boosters, get your flu shots, wear your masks when you’re around others,” he added. “Distance as much as possible and pay attention to your symptoms. Even if you wake up with just a stuffy nose, you don’t expose yourself to others. Seek out a test right away.”

On Tuesday, college officials delayed the start of in-person classes for the spring 2022 semester by a week, in an attempt to “rebuild the Emerson bubble.”