by Gary Derr, University of Vermont vice president for operations and public safety There has been much attention in the news in recent weeks about UVM’s coronavirus cases. But focusing only on the number of positive test results, as news reports have done, is misleading.
First, let’s delve into the testing, which is a critical element of a successful virus containment strategy. Since March 1, all UVM students have been required to test twice per week for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. That amounts to more than 18,000 tests per week, and we are quickly approaching 150,000 tests since our spring semester started on Feb. 1.
There is likely no other population in the state that is being tested more extensively than UVM students are. In a recent 14-day period, UVM conducted about 32% of all the tests across the entire state. That is a staggering statistic; nearly a third of all the coronavirus tests conducted throughout Vermont come from UVM tests.
Extensive testing identifies more cases, which media have reported on. But it has also allowed us to quickly identify individuals who need to go into isolation, and to trace those who they have had close contact with who should go into quarantine in order to slow the spread of the virus. Isolation and quarantine are also important elements of a containment strategy, and we have increased our on-campus capacity for this purpose.
Secondly, let’s look at positivity rates. The percent positive in a population that is tested so extensively gives a clear indication of the level of virus in that community. Among UVM students, one half of one percent are testing positive for the coronavirus. Compare that to the state’s overall positivity rate, which has been running above 2% in recent weeks. And that’s with UVM’s low positivity rate factored into it.
What all of this tells us is that UVM—particularly with its off-campus students who are embedded in the city’s population—serves as an indicator of what is happening in surrounding communities. A canary in the coal mine of sorts. If the state’s test positive rate is more than four times higher than UVM, with much less extensive testing in place, it confirms that community transmission levels are high in Vermont, and everyone should heed the call from public health experts to follow all the prevention guidance: masks on faces, six-foot spaces, uncrowded places; even as vaccination rates continue to increase.
UVM is not the cause, these statistics show, but rather a reflection of high transmission levels in the community. In a recent 14-day period, UVM accounted for only 20% of all the positive cases in Chittenden County.
None of this should be read as being resigned to the number of positive cases we have seen at UVM this semester, with five times more cases than we saw last semester. We know that more contagious variants, more time spent indoors and pandemic fatigue have all played a role. But regardless, we all want to see a decline in these numbers, and we continue to push a wide range of strategies aimed at that.
But let’s keep that in perspective. A few hundred students have tested positive, but that’s out of roughly 10,000 students. This brings me to another point I want to emphasize. That the vast majority of our students have done everything we have asked of them. More than 95% of them have never run afoul of the good behavior pledge we required them to sign. Most have complied with the testing requirement. And the vast majority take all the public health guidance seriously, and they adhere to it.
The pandemic has remained manageable on our campus. This is in part thanks to the containment strategy I cited above, but it’s also in great part due to the commitment and partnership that our students have demonstrated. We could not have gotten this far without them. Let’s not forget these are college students, at a time in their lives when active social engagement is particularly important. They’ve had to sacrifice so much (not able to gather even in small groups, not able to have friends visit in their rooms, having to avoid physical contact). Despite this, most have stuck to the plan for the sake of community health. We owe them a debt of gratitude.
UVM in many ways serves as a model for how to provide in-person instruction successfully during a pandemic. When the focus is only on the number of positive cases, a misleading indicator, this good news story goes unheard.