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Campus COVID-19 action level increased to “Level 3: High”

On Wednesday, November 11, Carleton’s COVID-19 Core Team sent an email to students, faculty and staff announcing that the college’s virus action level had been increased from “Level 2: Medium” to “Level 3: High.”

A key factor in the decision was the “significant” rise in cases in Rice County, according to the email. Preliminary county data now suggests a 14-day case rate of 77.4 cases per 10,000 residents, up from 40.3 cases for the October 18-31 period, according to the email and the county’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Testing conducted between November 1 and 7 found six positive cases on campus, while rapid tests conducted at Student Health and Counseling (SHAC) between November 7 and 11 returned seven additional positives, the email said. In contrast, the three previous weeks each saw only one confirmed positive, according to Carleton’s COVID-19 dashboard.

The seven positives from the SHAC rapid tests are not currently listed on Carleton’s dashboard. SHAC offers the Abbott ID Now test, according to a September 3 message from Dean of Students Carolyn Livingston. These tests return results in 15 minutes, but are less reliable than the PCR tests that Carleton uses to conduct 300 surveillance tests each week.

Under the Action Level 3 plan listed on Carleton’s dashboard, all classes and programs would be moved online and students instructed to shelter in place. Those changes will not be implemented at this time, the Core Team wrote in the email, “because we have not experienced transmission through program and classroom settings.”  

“Recently identified cases within our campus community were believed to be contracted through off-campus exposure,” the Core Team wrote.

“Because the classroom, studio, and laboratory settings are currently operating with six-foot or greater physical distancing and other recommended public health protocols, they are not likely contributors to disease transmission,” the email continued. Faculty may still choose to transition in-person activities online, they wrote.

About 60% of courses are entirely online this term. Only 10% are entirely in-person, with the remaining 30% consisting of both online and in-person activities.

The college did announce several new steps in light of the heightened action level. Students were told that they may not leave campus except to buy necessities, attend medical appointments and go to work, while Northfield Option students were told to limit travel to and from campus.

Students are now “strongly encouraged” to get tested before returning home, the email said. The college has ordered self-administered saliva tests for all students. Livingston had previously said in a November 5 update that Carleton would not provide testing prior to departure. At that time, she wrote that widespread testing was not warranted due to low rates of community transmission.

According to the Core Team, the tests are expected to arrive by Wednesday, November 18—the last day of classes. They are free to students and must be returned by mail. It is unclear how soon students could receive their results. The last day of finals is Monday, November 23, but students frequently make plans to travel home sooner based on their own finals schedules.

In her November 5 update, before the saliva tests were announced, Livingston wrote that any student testing positive would need to isolate on campus before traveling to avoid exposing others in transit. The Core Team stated that more information on the saliva tests is forthcoming.

On November 12, the Star Tribune reported that the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) is asking all Minnesotans ages 18-35 to get tested for COVID-19. Health officials believe this group is disproportionately spreading the virus, the article reports. An MDH commissioner interviewed in that piece focused specifically on students returning home from college.

Carleton has experienced delays in receiving surveillance tests results from the Mayo Clinic, according to the email. Results are supposed to be returned within 48 hours, but that window has lengthened as Minnesota’s testing burden increases. The college is moving to conduct additional targeted testing in addition to its weekly surveillance testing.

Apart from the new testing initiative, the Core Team email announced that varsity, club and intramural practices would be suspended on Friday, November 13 through the end of the term. Group 2 employees, many of whom have had a hybrid of in-person and remote work this term, are being asked to work from home if possible.

Minnesota has experienced a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. The state is currently reporting the eighth-highest case rate in the nation, according to data from the CDC.

This is an updated version of the article originally published in our Friday, November 13 print edition.

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