Despite a robust, twice-per-week testing system for undergraduates living in New Haven, several members of the Yale community voiced concerns about the voluntary testing regimen for most graduate students, faculty members and staff, which could lead to a future outbreak spreading through campus.
According to official University statistics, 26 Yale students have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, including seven in the last week. In that same six-month stretch, 110 employees tested positive — four of those came since Aug. 24.
One staff member — a Yale research technician with a chronic illness and a compromised immune system, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution — told the News that they have been living off of vacation and sick time for the past two months, biding time until the pandemic ends. The staff member has not been paid since July.
But, they told the News that time is running out. Soon, they will have to return to work, where the University does not require most staff members to be tested for COVID-19. But the thought of returning to their job — and potentially contracting the coronavirus — gives them anxiety.
“Those of us who are essential and who have been risking our safety from day one are consumed with immediate survival by design,” they said.
Already, Yale School of Public Health Dean Sten Vermund said the University has recorded gatherings above the 10-person maximum at both the undergraduate and graduate student levels. Some students that arrived at Yale and tested negative for COVID-19 have now tested positive after attending the gatherings, though the University cannot definitively link the cases to the parties.
“It’s an invitation to have happen at Yale what happened at Notre Dame, University of Southern California, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill,” Vermund said. “If we’re going to avoid it happening here, people are going to have to agree to do college life differently this year.”
Yale’s current COVID-19 testing policy requires in-residence undergraduates and graduate students living in high-density campus buildings to seek COVID-19 screening twice per week. The University also expects these students to adhere to stringent social distancing guidelines detailed in a community compact. Consequences for not adhering to the compact include a loss of access to campus.
Graduate and professional students living off campus are only required to be tested once, when they first return to New Haven. Then, they are given the choice to opt into once-weekly testing. For many staff members as well, optional testing is available once per week. The exception is staff members with daily or near daily interactions with students in communal housing, who are required to participate in weekly testing.
But, to Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Professor Paul Forscher, even twice-per-week testing may not be enough to get a solid grasp on the pandemic. Many new cases could slip through the cracks between testing days, he said. Yale’s current contact tracing efforts rely on “archaic” methods like patient recollection and phone calls to gauge others’ exposure to the coronavirus, according to Forscher.
Yale’s current contact tracing protocol has contact tracing team members coaching anyone who tests positive to remember their close contacts — anyone who was within six feet of them for more than 15 minutes. These close contact names are then given to the contact tracer, who alerts the contacts without revealing the name of the person who tested positive.
Forscher recommends that Yale take advantage of the scientists on campus and come up with what he calls “creative solutions” that use biometrics and mobile applications to track COVID-19 cases in real time. But, he told the News that his suggestions have fallen on largely deaf ears.
“It’s completely way behind the times,” he said, referring to current contact tracing efforts. “Yale could afford to give every single undergraduate a fitbit.”
Also concerning, Forscher said, is the discrepancy in testing availability between undergraduates and other members of the Yale community. Since some Yale research buildings allow for students to participate in research alongside graduate students and postdocs, laboratories could become key coronavirus hotspots, he added. This sets up a situation where students with twice-per-week testing mingle with people without any obligation to test.
“The populations are sure to mix over time,” Forscher explained. “It’s like playing Russian roulette.”
Vermund, who is also a member of the University’s public health contingency committee, said the differences in testing policies between certain groups of the Yale community are based on the likelihood of infection. Graduate students living at home, he said, have the same risk of infection as the general population, whereas students in communal housing are at high risk.
In some situations, the burden of testing can outweigh the benefit, Sandy Bogucki, professor of emergency medicine, told the News in an email. Bogucki explained there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to testing. If graduate students face a high risk of infection, their deans may advise them to get tested weekly.
But if they live off campus, weekly testing may pose more burdens — the time and inconvenience of frequent testing as well as false positives and subsequent 10-day isolation — than benefits.
Howard Forman, a public health professor, explained that graduate students living off campus fit into a different category than undergraduates. They live with fewer people than students in residential colleges, many do not come to campus often and they have less propensity to engage in risky behaviors.
“You could argue that graduate students and faculty and staff can be tested at a much, much lower frequency without having risk of spread,” Forman said. “But I think that we all should be flexible enough to change our plans when data changes, and if we were to see any level of outbreak, I think we should do more testing.”
According to Vermund, Yale’s Public Health Contingency Planning Committee is revisiting the opt-in testing policy.
“[The policies] are being reconsidered based on a whole host of public health and civil liberties concerns that are being weighed,” Vermund said.
Though the University has not seen a “super-spreader” event — a large cluster of people testing positive after a party — one such event could “explode” circumstances on campus, he said.
To protect faculty and staff, many employees are still working remotely whenever possible. For staff members who must enter dormitories, including cleaning and custodial staff, Yale has provided training and personal protective equipment. The University is providing protections traditionally reserved for healthcare workers to these staff members, Vermund said.
In some cases, staff members are even taking on the roles traditionally reserved for healthcare workers. Some Yale Hospitality workers have been reassigned to assist the University’s testing efforts, Hospitality Marketing and Communications Manager Christelle Ramos, told the News. These employees are required to be tested weekly.
Jason Diggs, a rounds cook, confirmed that some hospitality staff have been relocated to administer testing. From what he has heard, he said, these people have felt safe and are not coming into contact with any of the soiled testing materials.
“What we said to each other at work the other day was, there’s people out there losing their jobs, losing their houses, losing their loved ones,” Diggs said. “Be grateful for what has been given to you and feel blessed with the fact that Yale has been going out of their way to make sure that everybody has work.”
He said testing has been available to him whenever he wanted. Diggs added that he has been impressed with students’ adherence to social distancing measures.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that people wear masks and stay at least six feet apart to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
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