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Student town hall with COVID-19 core team

On January 25, Dean Carolyn Livingston, President Alison Byerly and consulting epidemiologist Ben Miller hosted a virtual Student Town Hall to answer questions about the state of COVID-19 on campus. 

Last issue, The Carletonian did a feature piece on Miller, highlighting his role in Carleton’s COVID-19 Core Team. Miller has worked at the Minnesota Department of Health as an epidemiologist on a variety of outbreaks going back to the original SARS and now works with a Public Health Consulting Group, engaging with several colleges like Carleton on formulating their COVID-19 responses. 

Miller began the Zoom reflecting on how the COVID-19 Core Team’s framework, developed in the spring of 2021, is informing the current strategy when dealing with Omicron: “One of the things that gives me comfort is that, going back even a year ago, some of the threshold measures that we set and never really exceeded back in the spring of 2021 came into use and were valuable as we looked at planning for Omicron in terms of when would we do surveillance testing and when might contact tracing resources need to be focused if we see a number of cases on campus.”

Although the campus reached a 6.88% 14-day positivity rate between January 8 and 14, Miller said Carleton’s “widely and highly vaccinated and boosted population, as well as ready access to testing” have kept case rates relatively low compared to the broader public.

“The numbers have actually been fairly encouraging when you compare the rate of illness on Carleton’s campus compared to the broader community,” said Miller. “So while we’ve seen a surge in Rice Country and in Minnesota and across the US, we haven’t really seen that in the data on campus so far.”

Miller also was optimistic that Carleton’s cases will be going down rapidly in the coming weeks: “Almost regardless of which model you look at we’re either at peak right now or will be peaking within the next several days […] we will look to see over the next two or three rates a rapid decline in community case rates.”

Students submitted questions during the Q&A concerning remote learning, transmission in dining halls and masking. In response to a question about why dining halls were kept open during the surge of cases early in the term, Miller said, “Dining halls still didn’t rise to the level of risk of exposure in more social settings where people are unmasked in smaller indoor settings. Most of the dining halls are fairly large spaces, and we did do a pretty in-depth analysis of those spaces using an air-handling model that was developed at MIT to look at safe capacities. We’ve looked at the data, we’ve looked at the air-handling in those spaces and felt that those spaces still don’t constitute a transmission risk.” Livingston added that grab-and-go options were made available for students not comfortable eating in dining halls. 

In response to questions about masking, OneCard access to buildings and testing, Livingston emphasized that the COVID-19 Core Team was using a “wait-and-see approach” to determine future guideline changes. On January 30, after the campus positivity rate dropped below 3%, the COVID-19 Core team released changes to guidelines allowing social gatherings and events with attendance up to 30 people with masking, reinstating OneCard access to residence halls, and allowing spectators at indoor athletic events.

When asked why the college isn’t requiring KN95 masks for everyone on campus, Livingston relayed that “supply chains for masks across the country are pretty low right now, so unless you’re the federal government, there’s some shortage. We aren’t going to require something that we can’t provide for everybody in the community right now. But we are making them available for everyone who wants one.” Masks are available for students to pick up in the Dean of Students Office. 

As far as the administration’s goal in mitigating the virus, Livingston said: “We don’t have any illusions about having zero cases on campus. We know that we are going to have cases, and my perspective is that we are trying to reduce the transmission of the virus on campus.” Byerly added that “normal will never be what it was before this, and I think it will be a long time before the effects of this experience will go away […] We will always strive to do the best we can at the same time that we’re trying to balance the protective measures we’re taking against the desire to offer the kind of education that students come to Carleton to get.”

Miller pointed out that residential colleges have been at the forefront of thinking about ways to balance risk mitigation and promote enriching social and educational opportunities for students. Byerly added: “I feel very positive about where we are, but I would say that the endgame is not something we can define at this point; it’s something that we will always be working towards as just the optimal state that the circumstances allow.”

Byerly, Livingston and Miller will host weekly Zoom sessions to continue to answer any questions and respond to comments about the college’s COVID-19 response and decision-making framework. All students are invited to attend. 

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