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Behind the rise in on-campus COVID-19 cases

At the end of the first week back on campus following spring break, Carleton began to see a steady rise in cases of COVID-19 that alarmed the general campus community, a contrast to the extremely low numbers that Carleton experienced last term. This raised a multitude of questions as to why these numbers were occurring, how Carleton was able to respond and what this means moving forward with the rest of Spring Term. 

The outbreak is reminiscent of the final weeks of Fall Term when the testing team reported a total of 26 cases during Ninth and Tenth Weeks. However, compared to Fall Term, the average number of close contacts reported by the infected students this term has significantly increased, with Fall Term cases reporting 1.9 and 2.8 close contacts on average during Ninth and Tenth Weeks while the most recent outbreak has seen averages of six and four close contacts in the first two weeks. 

Additionally, the college now suspects the presence of a COVID-19 variant due to a heightened spread of the virus. The college stated this in an email last week that said infected students’ “close contacts tested positive or became symptomatic at a higher rate than we have seen on campus before.” These events leave members of the Carleton community perplexed about their position moving into Spring Term as more Carls get their vaccine and hope to see an end to the virus.

On the evening of Friday, April 9, the college alerted students, faculty and staff about recent developments in the COVID-19 situation on campus via email. One of the more alarming pieces of information received was that the college “suspect[s] the presence of a more contagious variant of the virus.” 

Another update came on the afternoon of Monday, April 12, clarifying that the college “suspect[s] a more contagious variant of the virus that is widespread in Minnesota is present on campus.” According to the CDC COVID Data Tracker website, 55.6% of positive cases in Minnesota are linked to the B.1.1.7 variant, and 30.3% are tied to ‘Other Lineages.’ B.1.1.7, the most common version of the virus in Minnesota, is commonly known as “the UK variant.”  

The outbreak appears to have originated on 4th Goodhue, with 11 cases that can be traced back to the floor. Following the first few positive tests, the cases and their close contacts were moved into isolation and quarantine housing, respectively. On April 7, 4th Goodhue was asked to shelter-in-place while all 53 residents on the floor were tested. All of these tests came back negative, and the floor was released from shelter-in-place on Friday, April 9.  

Are the seemingly high numbers cause for concern? Yes and no. In comparison to Fall Term, the beginning-of-term baseline testing is almost identical in terms of percentages. The concern lies in the number of close contacts and the availability of quarantine and isolation spaces. As of Monday, April 12, the isolation and quarantine occupancy is at 59%—the highest it has been all year.

While the school has 101 beds and “the flexibility to add even more if needed,” the rapid acceleration of cases in the first two weeks certainly warrants extra caution in classes, dining and extracurricular activities that are in-person. 

While some professors have opted to move from in-person classes back to virtual classes for Week 3, the college has not released an official statement to mandate this. 

In an email sent out last term, on Thursday, March 4, Dean Livingston wrote, “The campus action level remains at Level 2: Medium, as we continue to be concerned about the risks that variants of the coronavirus could pose to our community.” This followed a statement announcing the campus had reported zero positive cases in the prior week’s round of testing. 

If ‘Level 2: Medium’ is called for exclusively because of the risk of a variant infecting our community, it begs the question of how we are still at ‘Level 2: Medium’ now that there is strong evidence suggesting that a variant has, in fact, been spreading across the student body. The information that the school has provided indicates that we are no longer at risk of a variant infiltrating our campus, but that it has already happened. The college has taken no significant action to identify the variant or restrict on-campus activity.  

On Monday, April 12, the college reported that Carleton would be moving forward at ‘Level 2: Medium.’ One factor that reportedly affected this decision was the relatively low infection rate of  0.78%.  

Administrators reinforced the need for Carleton students to follow the Covenant and maintain precautions such as social distancing and wearing masks. 

They also stated in the April 12 announcement that there is reason to be optimistic, as 43% of students, faculty, staff and regular contractors had reported to the college that they had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The school continues to distribute the vaccine to the Carleton community, with an on-campus vaccine clinic through Thrifty White Pharmacy set to distribute 500 doses next week, according to an April 15 announcement.

The apparent rise in virus transmissibility to close contacts could also be a result of a change in attitude of the student body, rather than the presence of a new variant. With more people on campus, student life feels like it is returning to ‘normal.’ This mentality is easy to adopt as peers and friends reunite. Certainly, regardless of the case numbers, it is important to continue to practice safe behaviors of masking, distancing and hand-washing. 

Encouragingly, though, 12% of the school is fully vaccinated. As the college continues distributing new vaccines each week—and partially vaccinated community members become eligible for their second doses—these numbers are expected to grow steadily.

Correction: Sunday, April 18 — The version of this article that appeared in our Friday, April 16 print edition stated that the average number of close contacts reported by infected students had “nearly tripled in size” during the first two weeks of Spring Term when compared to the last two weeks of Fall Term, when a rise in COVID-19 cases was also observed on campus. This phrase was misleading because only one possible pairing of the four figures cited in the sentence yields a calculated increase as large as threefold. The sentence has been edited to state the broader claim that the average number of close contacts “has significantly increased” between the two periods.

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