UMass Amherst reported 371 positive Covid tests in the week of Sept. 8 to Sept. 14, a sharp increase from the 149 of the previous week. The outbreak prompted Amherst College Chief of Police John Carter to send an email to the Amherst community on Sept. 17, calling on students, faculty and staff to adhere to the college’s safety restrictions. Amherst students are concerned by the rise in cases at nearby UMass but concurrently dread the possibility of increased restrictions.
In a joint email sent on Sept. 16, Directors of the UMass Public Health Promotion Center (PHPC) Ann Becker and Jeffrey Hescock communicated that the increase in positive UMass cases has mostly come from students who are off-campus and vaccinated. They emphasized that those infected had experienced mild to moderate illness and were not hospitalized.
Hescock and Becker also stated that the outbreak has been linked to “indoor social” events, like gatherings at downtown bars and large parties, where students have not been masked. “Positive cases continue to be predominantly among undergraduate off-campus students connected to un-masked social activities,” they wrote. “We have not seen any spread in academic settings.”
In his statement, Carter noted that the Town of Amherst has also seen a rise in active cases, reporting 321 as of Sept. 17. Covid cases at UMass and in town have risen in parallel, with both counts more than doubling this week.
The increase in positive cases has concerned many Amherst students. Maclin Satz ’23 said she is worried by the outbreak at UMass. “It makes me nervous just because I know testing is voluntary at UMass, so the numbers that they are reporting are not entirely accurate,” she stated.
“I’ve seen [UMass students] walking around near Amherst’s campus,” Satz continued. “I want to hope that they’re being responsible and staying home if they don’t feel good, but I know that’s probably not the case. It would really suck for us to have to go under stricter rules, not because [Amherst students] weren’t following [the restrictions], but because UMass wasn’t being responsible.”
Tim Song ’22 is also unnerved by the rise in numbers because “students go to different campuses for social gatherings” and many “students will not mask up when going [in]to [the] town of Amherst.”
For Song, becoming infected with Covid his senior year is especially worrisome. “Catching Covid-19 would cause a lot of stress especially in senior year, and knowing that vaccination doesn’t completely prevent transmission worries me,” he expressed.
Despite the qualms of the Amherst community, UMass administrators report that they expected an increase in Covid cases early in the semester. Steve Goodwin, deputy chancellor and chief planning officer at UMass, noted in a statement to the Boston Globe that he is confident in the ability of the university’s vaccination requirement, mask mandate and social distancing protocols to keep students safe.
Nevertheless, UMass is one of the few colleges in Massachusetts that is not requiring mandatory testing of its students. While the university is offering free vaccines and testing at the PHPC, testing is merely encouraged for those who believe that they have been experiencing symptoms of the virus.
Chief Communications Officer Sandy Genelius told The Student that various departments from each of the Five Colleges have been meeting virtually since the start of the pandemic to discuss their respective protocols and procedures. Leaders from the consortium have already set up a meeting to address the latest outbreak. “The Five College presidents meet September 21. Ultimately, since each institution's circumstances are unique, each then makes its own decision as to what is best for its community,” she stated.
So far, the only change that has been made to UMass’s Covid protocols is a limitation of football tailgating to students with parking permits. On- and off-campus students, faculty and staff of the university have also been advised to mask up and avoid indoor crowds. Selected students — for instance, in particular residential areas or social groups — were also asked to go for additional testing.
In light of UMass’s scant response, Carter wrote individually addressed recommendations for students and faculty and staff. He expressed alarm at the high transmissibility of the virus and urged all community members to “make smart choices.”
For students, Carter warned that an increase in infection rates on campus and evidence of significant noncompliance will force the college to “impose stricter rules.” To minimize risk, he said, students must exercise extra precaution.
“We ask that [students] please think before you act and comply with our health and safety protocols: do not allow non-Amherst College students into your residence halls,” he wrote. Carter went on to encourage students to adhere to the college’s mask mandates.
Faculty and staff were advised to be cautious when off-campus. “For faculty and staff, please be aware of the elevated local numbers and do all you can to avoid potentially risky behaviors off-campus, such as indoor dining,” Carter wrote in his message.
Though students understand the motivation behind the warning, some were more alarmed by the prospect of increased restrictions. Will Henderson ’23 was initially troubled by the email, but his fears were dispelled by the lack of communal spread. He remarked that “the recent jump in cases had me concerned for the first day or two after we heard about the positive tests, but once it became clear that there was not any community spread I was actually reassured that the combination of mandatory vaccinations and the current guidelines are enough to prevent spread at Amherst.”
Satz was similarly frustrated by Carter's email because she feels that the administration has consistently failed to clarify what is considered to be “noncompliance.” “I wish students were given a more objective understanding,” she said. “ For example, why can’t they say something like ‘if we see X many cases, then we will change the protocol to Y.’”
Reflecting on last year's stringent restrictions, Satz expressed worry that her personal well-being might be jeopardized if the college enhances restrictions once again.
Similar to Satz, Henderson wished that the college would explicate the meaning of noncompliance. He thinks the college needs to be “more realistic” about its expectations for students. “I don't understand why Chief Carter would make an empty threat, so I am very nervous that restrictions will be increased,” he said.
There are some students, however, who agree with the sentiment of Carter’s message. Song would much rather be safe than sorry in order to maintain the viability of having an in-person year and graduation. “It makes sense and is necessary for our health and safety,” he said. “I have many close contacts in classes and other commitments — one case of Covid-19 on campus would lead to a large spread.”