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COVID-19 update: baseline test results and what’s next

After a year of uncertainty, fear and Zoom classes coloring education and social life at Carleton, this fall term seems to be a safe return to the semi-normal. With promising baseline testing results and the soon-to-be relaxed masking requirements, the nearly universally vaccinated campus is taking some well-regulated steps towards a pre-COVID Carleton.  

Most promisingly, Carleton’s rigorous COVID testing initiative for incoming students reported encouraging results for the new academic year.  Of the 5,467 tests administered to students arriving to campus from around the globe, the school’s two-step COVID survey yielded only five positive results.

This .09 percent positivity rate has been reassuring to Carleton students as they return to packed comedy performances in Little Nourse Theater; attend Carleton’s first home football game in over a year at Laird Stadium and sit at more sociable Burton dining tables rotated to their original arrangement. For the first three weeks of Fall Term — until an upcoming October 6 change in protocol — students have been required to still wear face masks when in “indoor public spaces on campus” according to the Carleton COVID FAQ; but even then, campus life appears to have returned to much of its pre-pandemic mood.  

On the administrative end, the campus’ COVID-19 Core Team draws optimism from the testing results.  Under the Core Team’s 14-day framework, a positivity rate lower than one percent means “no restrictions” in dining, in-person gatherings, visitors and off-campus travel.  

When asked if Carleton predicts that this low positivity rate will continue, Director of Digital Strategies and Public Affairs Helen Clarke maintained that the school expects “to see very low infection rates” as long as Carleton remains “a [near] fully -vaccinated community.” 

“Even with the Delta variant,” Clarke said, “vaccines have proven very effective.”  As a member of the college’s COVID-19 Core Team, Clarke recommends that students take “common-sense” measures such as “staying home [when] sick, washing your hands [and mask], limiting activities that could put [students] at greater risk of contracting an illness, [and] wearing a mask in places that require one.”  

A significantly more relaxed mask requirement will begin Wednesday, October 6, when, according to a campus-wide email, “masks will no longer be required in most indoor public spaces on campus.” At that time, students will only need to wear masks in gatherings where “visitors are present,” or when requested to by faculty and staff when gatherings take place in their individual work spaces. Masks in classrooms may still be required at the discretion of professors.

In the wake of campus progress in halting the spread of the virus, a number of familiar COVID-19 fixtures are gone in the new academic year.  For example, the dining hall’s COVID layout has returned to normal, an empty Bald Spot once again is crowded with movie screenings and activity tables, and Parish House is no longer sectioned for quarantine.  

When asked how a relaxed Carleton campus is prepared for a spike in COVID in terms of quarantine space, Clarke noted that the school will “continue to have dedicated spaces reserved for isolation of positive students, albeit fewer than last year because fully-vaccinated individuals are no longer required to quarantine if they are identified as a close contact of a positive case.”  

This easing in quarantine is amongst one of the most significant returns to “normalcy,” as last year “consistently saw students needing to go into quarantine, despite very limited transmission among close contacts on campus,” according to Clarke.  Nevertheless, Clarke reiterated that despite the apparently relaxed measures, Carleton is “prepared for just about anything with its experience adapting to a constantly-changing pandemic.”

Currently, the biggest threat of students and faculty contracting COVID-19 lies in the surrounding community.  According to the Center for Disease Control, Rice County recently reported a  58 percent vaccination rate in contrast to Carleton’s 98 and 99.7 percent vaccination rate amongst faculty and students, respectively.  Speaking on behalf of the COVID-19 Core Team, Clarke said that “students, faculty and staff [should be] especially careful about their off-campus behaviors,” with the risk of contracting COVID believed to be greater outside of the college community than within.  

Given concerns about transmission from beyond the boundaries of campus, an uncertainty for students and faculty has been whether or not Family Weekend will continue—an almost unimaginable pre-COVID tradition to a student body with Rottblatt cancellations fresh in mind. Director of Parent and Family Giving Katie Berg stated that Family Weekend is still on Carleton’s schedule, and that Carleton would “not plan or host any event if the expectation was that significant spread would occur as a result.”  To mitigate spread, Berg said that this year’s plan for Family Weekend involves “most events [taking] place outdoors,” and the elimination of traditional activities “that involve close interactions in academic spaces, such as classrooms.”

Similar to Carleton, St. Olaf’s COVID-19 portal reports a greater vaccination rate (approximately 97 percent) amongst its students and faculty than surrounding Rice County. According to Clarke, Carleton’s Covid-19 Core Team “meets regularly with St. Olaf’s pandemic response team, and the two colleges are also consulting with the same epidemiologist to support our work.”  That said, St. Olaf’s positivity rate in late August stood at .8 percent, roughly nine times higher than Carleton’s most recent numbers. 

The availability of booster vaccines for students is another concern.  Currently, the CDC limits booster shot eligibility to those 65 years and older, as well as those 18-plus who are either immunocompromised, or live or work in “high-risk settings.”  Regarding Carleton’s ability to eventually dispense booster vaccines directly to students and faculty when the time comes, the situation is “dependent on the Minnesota Department of Health” according to Clarke.  

“Carleton is a designated Close Point of Dispensing (CPOD) site,” Clarke said, meaning that the campus “already had a structure in place to respond to this type of situation,” where the “CPOD team was able to quickly accept doses and set up vaccination clinics.  The same could be done for a booster clinic.”

Compared to the previous year and a half, the new academic year seems to be a refreshing return to pace for a student body fresh out of Zoom classes.  Now that the campus is fully vaccinated and baseline testing has yielded promising results, students can look forward to the simple pleasure of being able to smile at each other in the hallways of residence halls and academic buildings, in addition to other basic, yet foundational restorations to social normalcy in the Carleton community.

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