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COVID-19 testing program ushers in second semester, drawing on lessons from the first

During the 2020 fall semester, the College’s testing program saw unprecedented success. Of the over 90,000 tests that the College administered, only 34 came back positive. The College quickly isolated these positive cases, preventing a major outbreak from jeopardizing students’ on-campus experience. Thanks to widespread compliance with the COVID-19 mitigation protocols and an effective testing regimen, students completed the entire semester on Mayflower Hill.

For Jan Plan, many students returned to campus after visiting home for the first time in months. Compared to the fall semester, there was an uptick of COVID-19 cases on campus the first few weeks of Jan Plan. The College isolated dozens of students and dining was exclusively grab-and-go for most of the month. Using the lessons of the fall semester and Jan Plan, the College is looking to repeat its success this spring.

The Colby Echo communicated by email with Stephanie Sylvester, the College’s Director of Administration and Chief of Staff, about the COVID-19 and the second semester. Heading into the spring, Sylvester was cautiously optimistic. She noted the decreasing number of national and local cases, but stressed the importance of protocol compliance.

“The College monitors both national and local case counts. While the daily cases are trending downward, it is important that the campus continues following the health and safety measures that have allowed us to be successful,” Sylvester wrote. Sylvester explained that the College learned from its Jan Plan experience. The administration now understands that the campus is the most susceptible to a COVID-19 outbreak immediately after a large number of students return from being off campus, such as after a break. The weeklong quarantine period during the first week of the semester was designed to prevent an outbreak like the one in Jan Plan.

“The return of students in January brought some important insights about the need for us to be especially careful following arrival. We anticipated positive cases at the start of the semester and the extended quarantine period was implemented to prevent student-to-student transmission in the early weeks,” Sylvester said.

Sylvester believes that testing is one of the most important factors in securing a safe, successful spring semester.

“The use of frequent and routine testing proved to be a critical tool in identifying cases on campus. Because testing is so essential to our ability to control the virus, testing compliance is a point of heightened focus,” she said.

While the best aspects of the testing process, such as the frequency of testing, will remain the same, the College has added some important improvements. The College has been testing three times a week, which it will continue to do through February and March. Testing frequency after that will be determined based on the amount of cases on campus, in the surrounding area, and throughout the country. Members of the testing program now use antigen tests in addition to the PCR model used in the fall. Sylvester said that this addition allows the thrice-weekly testing and serves a procedural purpose.

“Antigen testing is a very useful point-of-care screening tool that helps quickly identify if someone may have COVID-19,” Sylvester wrote. “Antigen test results are available on-site after 30 minutes of testing while PCR test results are available 24 hours or more following receipt by the Broad Institute.”

Sylvester stressed the importance of daily symptom tracking on CoVerified, participating in the testing program, wearing face coverings, practicing physical distancing, and maintaining hand hygiene. If students conscientiously comply with all of the College’s COVID-19 mitigation measures, then the likelihood of a rewarding spring semester will drastically increase.

~ Matt Rocha ‘23

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