As the spring semester begins, Yale students and public health experts confront two chief unknowns: how virulent the coronavirus variants be and to what extent students will abide by the rules.
Thousands of undergraduates arrived in New Haven last week, encountering similar protective measures from last semester but a more precarious community context — although they have recently begun to decrease, COVID-19 case counts in New Haven remain far higher than they were during fall move-in.
In deliberating about the spring, the public health committee, which advises University COVID-19 Coordinator Stephanie Spangler, considered whether students could safely return given the presence of the more transmissible B.1.1.7. variant in Connecticut and concerns about higher case counts. But the committee ultimately decided that students could travel back to campus for in-residence learning. The decision took into account factors including the University’s management of COVID-19 last semester, effectiveness of community health guidelines, hospital capacity and declining case counts in New Haven.
“We have no guarantees that this is going to go well, but from our experience last semester we think it can,” said Director of Infection Prevention at Yale New Haven Hospital and public health committee member Richard Martinello.
Throughout the fall term, Yale had several case clusters — within the Yale men’s hockey team, among students of three residential colleges and in Lanman-Wright Hall — and a total of 401 cases during the first term, according to the University COVID-19 dashboard. But in the coming semester, students now face higher rates of community transmission.
“That’s a very important difference between what the beginning of the second semester is going to look like compared with the fall semester,” Martinello said. “When we started in the fall, there was a really low rate in the community and now we’re seeing very high sustained rates of transmission.”
Dean of the School of Public Health and committee member Sten Vermund said that the committee’s mathematical models for spring term look “reasonably favorable.” The hospitalization rates in Connecticut are higher than they were in the fall, but the rates are trending down, he said. Additionally, the rate of transmission is declining, despite still being higher than it was in the fall.
The committee also considers Yale New Haven Hospital capacity when making decisions on whether students are allowed on campus, Martinello said, but it wasn’t a limiting factor in the fall term. Most Yale students did not require hospitalization for coronavirus symptoms, and though other Yale community members did, the Yale New Haven Hospital never stretched past its capacity last semester.
Similar to the fall term, enrolled students are participating in a twice-weekly asymptomatic testing and are encouraged to minimize interaction with New Haven aside from campus. But this term, reflecting increased case counts, students are in a three-phase, month-long quarantine. Through this process, students living on campus cannot leave their residential colleges until Feb. 15 and cannot leave campus until March 1.
The thousands of students descending on New Haven from around the world are adding “fuel to the fire” of existing COVID-19 spread in New Haven, Martinello said. Keeping students on campus until March 1 helps to protect the New Haven community.
In the fall, students contracted the virus from social gatherings and eating inside restaurants, Martinello said. He added that some students snuck out of quarantine.
Sometimes when people break the public health guidelines, nothing happens, but other times, it turns into a superspreader event, Martinello said.
“It’s like crossing the street against the light,” Martinello said. “Most of the time you’re going to be okay, but then it’s the time you get hit by the bus coming down the street, that’s when it’s not okay anymore.”
The community COVID-19 guidelines become even more important with the introduction of the new, more transmissible variant of the coronavirus first identified in the United Kingdom. As of Sunday, there were eight confirmed cases of the variant in Connecticut. But the actual number is likely higher, Martinello said. He predicts the B.1.1.7 variant will become dominant in New Haven within the next two months or so.
Epidemiology professor Albert Ko said the question is how fast the variant will spread and when there may be a surge in cases. The answer could affect whether students can go to in-person classes and laboratories or whether all classes must be remote.
The strategies to slow the spread of the variant are the same as the strategies utilized this past year, but people must adhere to them with greater fidelity, Vermund said.
“We’re hoping that people can keep the faith for another four or five months until vaccine rates are high enough that we end up with the herd immunity phenomenon,” Vermund said.
Martinello said there are reasons to be optimistic. Yale did not see outbreaks from classes, drama productions or work in art studios. Though that may be partially attributed to luck, it suggests the interventions of masking, distancing, ventilation, contact tracing and frequent testing are effective, Martinello added.
In general, students were committed to following the public health guidelines, both Vermund and Martinello said.
But still, some of Yale’s contact tracers reported that students had withheld names of their close contacts to avoid putting their friends in quarantine, Martinello said.
The FAS Senate COVID-19 Crisis Committee recently asked Spangler about the merits and limits of contact tracing. Spangler said that although contact tracing is not a perfect system, it is an effective and worthwhile public health measure. Martinello expressed similar sentiments.
But people often struggle to remember who they come into contact with, Emily Erikson, chair of the FAS Senate committee, said from her experience as a social network researcher.
“It turns out that people are horrible at recalling who they have interactions with even if it just happened in the last week,” Erikson said.
Still, she said, it is much better to catch about three quarters of the close contacts, even if it is an imperfect method.
Though students largely adhered to public health guidelines this fall, a new cohort — sophomores — has returned to campus this semester. The committee has discussed how sophomores, who had some of the traditional college experience last year, will have to radically shift their expectations around social gatherings, Martinello said.
Connecticut currently has a 3.64 percent daily test positivity rate.
Rose Horowitch | email@example.com