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Urgent COVID-19 Update

DEPARTMENT(S): 
September 3, 2021

This message was sent to the WPI community.

In order to make this year better than last year, we are very closely watching public health trends as we work to protect the health and safety of our community, which remains our top priority. The pandemic continues to impact our community, and we expect to see ups and downs with periods when we need to throttle back in order to be able to stay together. This is one of those times. 

I am writing today with some urgent information about COVID cases, as we head into the long Labor Day weekend. Please read this whole message carefully, and act to help us advance the greater good in our community.

We are currently seeing a concerning number of cases and close contacts among our population—especially among students gathering at off campus locations and events. Our individual and collective choices will directly impact how this academic year unfolds. The next two weeks will be critical, and your efforts will make all the difference; this is a “one for all, and all for one moment” if there ever was one.

What You Need to Know

At this moment, WPI has 67 active COVID cases (the majority of whom are vaccinated students)--and we know more are coming. Note that we have experienced issues with the dashboard due to our pooled testing methods, which are different than last year, but the latest update is accurate and complete. In addition to the confirmed cases, we have identified more than 200 close contacts and between these contacts and the coming holiday weekend, we anticipate more cases in the coming days.  Last year, holidays proved to be nexuses for contagion, and with Labor Day weekend upon us, we ask you to think carefully about any plans to gather, even in relatively small numbers, on or off campus, and to avoid hosting or attending parties.

Of course, helping to control this spread will extend beyond the long weekend, and to be most helpful, you need to understand how it’s happening. The majority of these cases resulted from being a close contact of someone who was positive; only a few individuals were surprised by their infection because many knew they had been exposed due to their behaviors, and by socializing with friends, family, colleagues or acquaintances – many of whom have subsequently learned they have COVID.   

  • To date there is no evidence of on-campus transmission (something we are closely monitoring); this includes within classrooms, residence halls, or dining halls.  
  • At this point, only four staff members, and no faculty members, have tested positive. 
  • The majority of cases arose from off-campus gatherings – casual get-togethers with friends in off campus apartments, parties, bars, restaurants, family, etc. There are clusters of infection among different student groups and friend groups where informal gatherings are fairly common.
  • Almost all report feeling like they have a cold with congestion and lots of fatigue; unvaccinated individuals also have fevers, coughing, and are generally more ill, although no individual is currently seriously ill.
  • Those in isolation cannot attend classes or socialize in person in any manner for 10 days; for those in quarantine (only unvaccinated close contacts must quarantine) that time may extend to 14 days 

What We’re Doing Now; Including New Guidelines ​​​​​​

  • WPI has a solid process for testing, alerting, managing, and helping positive cases and close contacts, but we are actively working to find more resources - both in terms of staffing and supplies – to help with this critical work. 
    • Please Note: This has been a remarkably busy time for our Health Team; they remain diligent and caring, but they are also stretched incredibly thin.  Also, the Broad Institute, which processes our COVID-19 tests, is managing a surge in volume as other colleges reopen their campuses for the fall. We are seeing slower turn around on tests—closer to 36-48 hours than the 24 hours we’ve grown accustomed to. Please be patient.  
  • Students who test positive for COVID-19 are isolating for 10 days and receiving appropriate medical care. Using contact tracing, WPI also is working to notify all close contacts to begin following close contact guidance and promptly begin additional testing, as indicated by their vaccination status
  • Unvaccinated WPI students or employees should get tested twice a week. There are no assigned days for these tests, but they must be at least two days apart. The university is also actively working to transition back to individual testing and will likely move to twice-per-week testing for many more people starting as soon as next week. Details to come soon. 
  • Over the next two weeks, we are asking that all events be held outdoors whenever possible. Or postpone events until we reach more manageable COVID levels on campus. If neither of those options are possible, indoor events must ensure social distancing is possible, and/or to make them virtual. Of course, large events are the greatest concerns, and attendees of large outdoor events will be required to wear masks – this includes athletic events. Indoor contact sport activities at the Sports and Recreation Center – including classes, clubs and recreation - will be socially distanced and/or modified.

We know our students are concerned about possibly having to go back to remote learning.  We want to assure everyone that being together – especially for in-person instruction – is what we most want to preserve. Although we are not seeing spread in academic settings, and have not seen any cases of COVID among our faculty, we are asking that faculty be creative and thoughtful about how best to help students meet their learning goals in ways that will help WPI return to manageable levels of COVID within our community and will work with them further towards that goal. We are enabling faculty to have more flexibility in how they deliver instruction over the next two weeks as we work to bring our case numbers down. So, some classes may temporarily have more online components, but many will not. Again, we all understand the importance of in person learning and are doing all we can to preserve it. Also, campus offices will remain open and staffed and follow health and safety precautions.

Where We Need Your Help and Tried and True Mitigation Techniques

As we return to a better normal, our students, faculty, and staff travel more freely to, from, and around campus, and this has made WPI’s bubble more permeable than last year. We need your help in reducing the numbers of cases and close contacts and ask you to practice multiple layers of protection—simultaneously reducing your own risk and the spread of COVID-19 and, in the process,  making yourself feel more comfortable in certain circumstances and situations:

In Any Situation

  • Follow current mask mandates (indoors, except in private spaces), and consider wearing masks outdoors when social distancing isn’t possible.
  • Follow social distancing protocols. 
  • Whenever possible, keep windows open when the space is occupied: offices, classrooms, labs, residence halls, etc.
  • Wash or sanitize your hands frequently.

In Our Classrooms

  • Faculty are strongly encouraged to use tech assistance, such as lecture capture, to help students who may have to isolate/quarantine keep up with their classwork. 
  • To help with contact tracing if it is needed, students are encouraged to sit in the same seat for the duration of the term, and exchange names with all neighbors within a 6-foot radius. 

In Social Situations

  • It’s best to socialize outdoors and socially distanced and masked (if social distancing isn’t possible). To help with this, WPI is adding even more outdoor furniture across the campus.
  • Follow and encourage safety protocols when you do spend time in indoor spaces; this will greatly help reduce transmission risk. 
  • Be aware of and limit your close contacts by minimizing the number of people you socialize with in non-distanced environments. Minimizing close contacts is especially critical right now.
  • Be extra careful off campus; not every place has as high a vaccination rate as WPI. 
  • Build and maintain your personal WPI “bubble,” and remain vigilant when visiting or spending time with people outside of WPI. 
  • If gathering with friends or family, or planning any events, aim for the outdoors whenever possible. 

When Dining

  • Practice social distancing and/or eat outdoors whenever possible, and remove your mask only when actively eating or drinking. 
  • When moving about dining halls, wear your mask

With all this said, it’s important to remember that WPI is starting this year in a strong position; our high vaccination rate helps ensure that the campus environment will be better for students, faculty, and staff. But it is critical right now that we not let our guard down. Having more of us back on the hill is a great thing, but our close proximity to each other means that we need to re-double our mitigation efforts. 

This is a community of caring and committed problem solvers. I have every confidence that, working together again will bring success and bolster the “better normal” we’ve been working so hard to establish. We need your help. And we are counting on you to #ProtectTheHerd!

Sincerely,

Laurie