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Q&A: W&M’s Public Health Advisory Team on current COVID-19 cases

William & Mary saw an increase in reported student cases of COVID-19 over the weekend, with a current total of 107 active cases among students and three among employees, as of Sept. 7. All of the people who tested positive have reported mild symptoms or are asymptomatic.

W&M News spoke with the university’s Public Health Advisory Team to explore the causes and implications of the increase. Members of the team will participate in a Community Conversation at 6 p.m. ET on Sept. 9 with W&M President Katherine A. Rowe. It will be streamed live on the university’s Community Conversation web page.

Why is William & Mary seeing an increase in cases?

From what our case managers have reported, a vast majority of the positive cases are attributable to multiple unmasked social settings. We have no evidence of spread within classrooms or administrative buildings. Analysis by many experts, including our team, concludes that COVID-19 spread doesn’t occur in classroom settings when students and the instructor are vaccinated and when masks are worn properly. 

What we are seeing is similar to what is being seen in other communities across the country. Based on our experiences last year, we anticipated a bubble of cases at the start of the semester. We know how to respond and what works to minimize the spread of the disease, and we have implemented those steps. Just like last year, we need the campus community to commit to taking personal precautions that will safeguard the health of the entire university and beyond.

Has the university made any operational changes based on the increase in cases?

The university has decided to require masking at all times while on campus — both outdoors and indoors, unless you are eating, drinking, or can maintain appropriate physical distancing of at least 6 feet. Additionally, all W&M dining will be “to go” for at least the next two weeks, and student organizations are encouraged to use virtual formats or outdoor settings for meetings and activities. W&M Athletics also has made adjustments including requiring masks in the weight room, reassigning locker rooms and moving football team activities outdoors as much as possible. Learn more in a message that Chief Operating Officer Amy Sebring sent to campus yesterday.

Is W&M considering a move back to remote learning?

No. Our goal is to teach in person, with the exception of specific online programs or courses. We are moving forward with living in a pandemic, and we have a much better understanding of COVID-19 and have highly effective vaccinations. We also have the benefit of better science and data analytics, which has increased our understanding of the virus. These are essential tools as we move forward with living in a pandemic.

The health and wellness of this community remains the top priority. Our team and the COVID-19 Response Team meet multiple times a week to assess current conditions and to anticipate areas in which we may need to change our operations.

How is W&M making decisions about COVID-19? Is there a threshold at which W&M will move back to remote learning and remote work?

The university does not have one threshold or tipping point that would trigger a switch from our current modes of teaching and learning. We are monitoring a number of data points, including COVID-19 trends on campus and in our broader community, how quickly infections are spreading in those areas and more.

The university continues to make decisions in a phased way based on the latest data and science available from health officials, and in direct consultation with our team. Again, we know what works to stop the spread at this moment and that includes a vaccinated community wearing masks.

William & Mary’s goal remains to provide an exceptional education in person, while safeguarding the health of our employees and students during an ongoing pandemic. As we move forward, our planning must be necessarily flexible and will, as it has over the last 18 months, be based on current health data.

What happens to students who test positive?

Those who test positive must ReportCOVID.wm.edu so they can be contacted by our case managers with information on how to isolate off campus for 10 days, continue with their coursework and take next steps. 

It is essential that students use the W&M system for case management and testing. Going outside our system has ripple effects that could hamper our ability to respond. Ultimately, not reporting symptoms or test results makes William & Mary less safe, speeds the rate of transmission and threatens our ability to remain in-person. 

Based on the prevalence of vaccines, the preference of many students to isolate at home and the need to shift to a long-term “steady state” of operating under pandemic conditions, we announced in July that students and their families should plan for any quarantine and isolation housing this semester to occur off campus. The university is providing a two-day hotel stay to bridge the transition to their personal quarantine and isolation plan and funds to help students who need them. Very few students who tested positive have required hotel stays.

After 10 days of isolation, COVID-19-positive students must be asymptomatic and cleared by a physician before they return to class and other group settings.

If a member of the campus community tests positive for COVID-19, what should they do next?

They should report their positive test result through our case management system, ReportCOVID.wm.edu. A case manager will contact with them with information on isolating, continuing with their coursework remotely and taking any additional steps necessary. Through our case management system, anyone who has been in close contact will be notified to test at the appropriate time, per CDC guidelines.

Students who are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or have been in close contact with someone who tested positive should also report through the university’s case management system at ReportCOVID.wm.edu The case manager will arrange for any necessary testing, which is free through the university.

As we mentioned above, it is very important that students use the W&M case management system.

Are people who are vaccinated still getting COVID-19?

Yes, we are seeing positive cases in students who are unvaccinated and vaccinated both. About 93% of our students are fully vaccinated (or 96%, if you look at students who are engaging in on-campus activity), and thankfully we are only seeing mild cases or asymptomatic positive cases. We expect the number of fully vaccinated students and employees to increase as we reach our Sept. 17 deadline for the second or final dose.

As the CDC has said, breakthrough infections among vaccinated people are to be expected. Whether vaccinated or not because of a religious or medical exemption, we encourage all members of our campus community to continue taking preventive measures to stop the spread of the virus.