Student COVID-19 cases hit “unprecedented” level; isolation housing tracker quietly removed
The isolation housing capacity tracker was removed from the University’s COVID-19 data dashboard as a record number of undergraduates tested positive.
Zoe Berg, Photo Editor
As undergraduate cases hit the highest daily count since the start of the spring semester, the isolation housing capacity tracker has been quietly removed from the University’s COVID-19 data dashboard.
A total of 84 undergraduates tested positive on Feb. 14, according to the Yale COVID-19 data dashboard. The figure represents a significant jump from previous daily case counts over the past week, ranging from 18 cases on Feb. 13 to 48 cases on Feb. 8. Meanwhile, the Connecticut positivity rate has fallen to 4.87 percent.
Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun and Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd addressed the spike in a Feb. 16 email to the student body, characterizing the numbers as “unprecedented” and urging students to take action to reduce transmission.
“This is a far higher number than we have ever seen, and we are bracing for the possibility of worse numbers ahead,” Chun and Boyd wrote.
The deans pointed to unsanctioned social gatherings as the primary source of the surge, citing conversations with infected students about their activities prior to testing positive. They characterized the gatherings as “dense, unmasked” events taking place on- and off-campus with food and drink. Official University activities — such as eating in the dining halls — account for “only a very small number” of cases, and no known positives have been traced back to in-person classes, according to the email.
Cases still remain below the University’s highest single-day case count of 167 positives on Jan. 3. The majority of those cases, however, were among Yale staff, faculty and graduate and professional students, as most undergraduates were away from New Haven during winter recess. Boyd and Spangler did not respond to questions as to whether the University would alter its policies or change its alert level in response to the spike.
“This positivity rate is putting more and more students through the challenges of isolation,” Chun and Boyd wrote. “… [T]he teams at Yale Health, Dining, Hospitality, [Yale Conferences and Events] and Facilities, as well as the residential college staffs, are straining to take care of them.”
According to the email, 253 undergraduates are currently in isolation. Boyd in her email to the News stated that while isolation numbers are “constantly in flux,” there are currently 123 students isolating in place, 70 isolating in Arnold or McClellan Halls and 59 isolating in off-campus housing. An additional 23 students chose to travel home to isolate, Boyd added.
On Feb. 9, Boyd wrote to the student body announcing the implementation of an isolate-in-place policy, triggered by demand for isolation housing “reaching capacity.” The plan dictated that moving forward, many students in single bedrooms would be assigned to isolate in their rooms if they tested positive, rather than moving to official University isolation housing.
Still, Yale’s isolation housing capacity tracker had remained stagnant at 76 percent capacity since at least Jan. 28. The tracker was removed from the website entirely as of Feb. 16.
The isolation-in-place plan, University COVID-19 Coordinator Stephanie Spangler explained, was developed to isolate students effectively should a surge like this occur. The plan requires that some isolation housing capacity be kept available for students who do not live in double bedrooms, altering the accuracy of isolation housing capacity as it appeared on the dashboard.
“Once we began isolating in place, we determined that the dashboard information about isolation was not as informative as it might be,” Spangler told the News. “We are working on new isolation information for the dashboard.”
In her email to the News, Boyd added that there is no longer a “clear denominator” for isolation housing capacity given the shift in policy. Capacity largely hinges on whether COVID-positive students live in single or double bedrooms, she wrote — about half of all on-campus students live in singles.
Additionally, determining the capacity of Arnold and McClellan Halls is “more complex than it might seem,” Boyd wrote. There are 71 total bedrooms between the two buildings. According to Boyd, while most can be double-occupied if necessary, “[i]n practice, it’s not possible to fill every single bed.” She pointed to several factors, including the need to clean rooms between residents, attempts to avoid housing asymptomatic COVID-positive students with symptomatic ones and the reservation of select rooms for students with accessibility concerns.
After the disappearance of the isolation housing capacity tracker from the COVID-19 dashboard on Wednesday, Howard Forman, a professor of radiology and biomedical imaging, public health management and economics, emphasized the importance of making “a reasonable effort to have accurate data.”
“From the beginning, I think they’ve been trying to be as transparent and as correct as possible,” Forman said in an interview. “When I identified a problem with [the tracker] early on, I spoke to the person who was charged with that particular data element, and they acknowledged the particular day when it was wrong. You’re dealing with human beings, and you’re dealing with data, that while it’s consequential, it’s not the type of data that if you get it wrong, the plane crashes.”
Though the University’s dashboard noted 89 student cases on Feb. 14, Chun and Boyd in their email referenced 94 positives on the same day.
Spangler explained in an email to the News that disparities between publicly-reported caseloads and actual counts may be attributed to the fact that new positive cases are reported more frequently than the dashboard is updated. Spangler also noted that the University’s COVID-19 resulting team sometimes receives reports of positive tests which are performed outside of Yale’s testing program and therefore not represented on the dashboard.
Boyd reiterated Spangler’s sentiment in an email to the News, stating that the 94 positives mentioned in Chun’s email included students who tested positive outside the Yale system — typically using a rapid antigen test — and called the University’s Campus COVID-19 Resource Line to report the result.
Housing COVID-positive students has posed challenges for the University in recent weeks, given the notable spike in undergraduate cases. On Feb. 10, students reported being asked to isolate in place in double rooms with their COVID-negative roommates, contradicting official University policy. This weekend, Boyd reprimanded students in isolation housing for hosting disruptive parties.
The Yale vaccine clinic is located at 310 Winchester Ave.