January 14, 2021: Public Health Update

Date: January 14, 2021

From: Tom McLarney, MD

Subject: Public Health Update

To the Wesleyan community,

Wishing you all a very happy, healthy, and safe 2021!

Many of us are feeling optimistic at the start of this new year with the COVID-19 vaccination campaign underway. Research and development as well as production of vaccines has occurred at an extremely fast pace, and two vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna have received Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It seems likely that other vaccines may be approved soon. The vaccine roll-out has hit some stumbling blocks, with variation across states in the criteria and systems being used to deliver the vaccines.

With that being said, 2021 has also certainly started with COVID-19 challenges. We have seen increasing numbers of cases and hospitalizations across the country and in the state of Connecticut. As I write this, the positivity rate in Connecticut approaches 11 percent—the highest we have seen since the onset of the pandemic. In addition, variants, or mutant strains, of the SARS CoV-2 virus appear to be significantly more transmissible, contributing to greater spread of the virus, though thankfully not a more severe illness. Post-holiday surges resulting from travel and gatherings in late December may continue to increase the already-high positivity rates over the next several weeks. And cold weather is keeping most of us indoors, where there is a higher risk of the virus spreading. Meanwhile, recent reports show that more than half of COVID cases were contracted from a person who was either asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, reinforcing that we can never let our guard down with SARS CoV-2 around. Thankfully, reduced travel and COVID prevention measures seem to be contributing to a very light flu season thus far, which is important as the confluence of a bad flu outbreak and COVID-19 could rapidly overwhelm our already-taxed health care systems.

It is extremely important that we do not become complacent following a very safe fall semester. In fact, we need to double down with our precautions to be as safe as possible. One example of this will be our advice that students living in woodframe houses wear their face covers at all times except when in their own rooms alone or bathing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released new travel restrictions, which may impact some of our international students: Those coming into the U.S. must present documentation of a negative COVID-19 test (PCR swab or saliva or rapid antigen tests are all acceptable) within 72 hours of boarding their flight. If someone has had COVID-19 and has recovered, they need to show documentation of such.

Connecticut is currently in Phase 1a of administering the COVID-19 vaccine, which includes health care workers, first responders, and nursing home residents and staff. The state will be entering Phase 1b very soon, in which will those 75 years of age or older and essential workers will be vaccinated. On our campus, the latter category will include faculty and student-facing staff in areas such as Public Safety, Food Services, Religious and Spiritual Life, and others who cannot work remotely.

I have been asked by several parents and students if college campuses are considered congregated living (along with places like in-patient behavioral health facilities, homeless shelters, Department of Correction facilities, and inpatient rehabilitation facilities). For purposes of the vaccine roll-out, the answer is no.  At this time, we do not know when healthy young adults will be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Connecticut. My best guess would be late spring or summer. Students who have an underlying medical condition that could result in severe illness if they contract COVID appear to fall into Phase 1c, though this has not been verified by the state nor has the timeline been specifically defined.

I have also received questions about students who were able to receive their first vaccine dose already in their home state or country. At this time, Connecticut does not allow the second dose to be administered to anyone who doesn’t meet its current phase criteria. The implications of delaying the second dose if you have already received the first are not yet known, but it is officially not advised.

Finally, even if you are fully vaccinated, it is important that you continue to follow COVID safety guidelines, including wearing masks and social distancing. This is because the vaccine is not 100 percent effective, and even if you don’t get sick, you may still be able to carry and transmit to the virus to others.

It is important for all our students to be aware of our campus protocols for the isolation of positive students and quarantine of close contacts. We will be shortening quarantine from 14 to 10 days (with a negative test performed prior to the end of quarantine).  Any student who has been in isolation or quarantine will tell you it is rough.  However, these are the public health measures we need to adhere to in order to mitigate the spread of COVID on campus.  This takes on a higher importance than ever in light of mutant strains that appear to be more easily transmitted.

We are ready to face the challenges that the spring semester will bring us. We continue to closely monitor the local, state, regional, national, and international COVID-19 climate as well as consult with the CDC, state Department of Public Health, and our peer colleges and universities to formulate and revise as needed our plan for the spring semester.

Tom McLarney, MD