Director of Environmental Health Responds to Russell Towers COVID Cluster

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-Nick Twomey and Brittany Eldridge

  On Mar. 1, Fitchburg State President Richard Lapidus sent out an email notifying the campus community of a cluster of positive COVID-19 cases in Russell Towers. President Lapidus stated that more testing would occur until the cases were contained. By temporarily increasing COVID testing, isolating COVID positive students, and quarantining close contacts of COVID positive students, the COVID Task Force at Fitchburg State managed to reduce the number of new cases from 30 on the week ending on Feb. 27 to 10 on the week ending on Mar. 5. 

       On Feb. 5, seven positive COVID test results were recorded on Fitchburg State’s test results dashboard. On both Feb. 12 and Feb. 19, three positive cases were reported. Then, the week ending on Feb. 27, mandatory testing for Russell Towers residents revealed 30 positive cases and 1,479 negative cases for all of the campus COVID tests.

       Leah Fernandes, Director of Environmental Health and Safety & Risk Management,  said she constantly monitors the testing of students on campus. Increased testing of residential students was implemented as a result of the cluster in Russell Towers, but was halted as soon as the cases were identified and individuals were quarantined or isolated. 

      This semester, all residential students and commuters on campus three days or more a week are tested once a week and athletes are tested twice a week. Fernandes stated that the number of new cases dropped. She said that she hopes that the current frequency of testing will keep Fitchburg State from experiencing another cluster of cases.

       Fernandes accomplishes the majority of contact tracing, herself. She does have a team on call if a larger cluster of cases emerges, or if those who tested positive were in contact with a large number of students. 

        When someone tests positive, Fernandes must not only contact trace, but also notify the campus community of the case. She constantly monitors cases, but may refrain from reporting the case immediately if it is very late at night or very early in the morning. Students who tested positive are notified first. Then, Fernandes reaches out to close contacts of the COVID positive individual. After that, she contacts Student Affairs so that they can send out notices to positive students’ professors.

       When asked about false positive and false negative COVID test results, Fernandes stated that she is not concerned because questionable tests are flagged. She said that COVID tests Fitchburg State uses, polymerase chain reaction tests (PCR), are reliable. Also, these tests are run through the Broad Institute.

Students who test positive, or are close contacts of those who test positive, are notified by Fernandes and asked to choose between quarantining or isolating at home or on campus. The Mara dorms, Fernandes said, are used for this purpose. The isolation dorms are separated from the quarantine dorms. Students with positive test results are housed in the isolation dorms and students who chose not to receive a test or who tested negative but were in contact with a positive case are housed in the quarantine dorms.

        In addition, Fernandes updates COVID positive students and their close contacts on their own personal quarantine or isolation schedule. She sends them one of two documents issued by The Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Executive Office of Health and Human Services, Department of Public Health, and Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences. One document provides guidelines for quarantining and the other for isolating. 

        On their fifth day of quarantine, students can take a COVID test. If they are symptom-free on day eight, and test negative, then they can stop quarantining. Students in isolation cannot leave their home or dorm, aside for necessary medical appointments, and can only stop isolating when instructed to do so by a public health authority. Fernandes notifies students as to which day of quarantine they are on so that they can determine how much longer they will be quarantined for. 

          Students can find the Massachusetts Commonwealth guidelines for quarantine and isolation on the website. If students have questions regarding COVID testing, quarantining, the positive cases at Russell Towers, or other COVID-19 related concerns, they can contact Leah Fernandes at [email protected]. Students can send an email containing any questions or concerns about the campus’ COVID-19 response to [email protected]