Levine joins Zoom Town Hall on COVID questions
SMC CAN! arranges 90-minutes of information and answers from top state health official, President Sterritt and campus leaders about virus, policies and academics going forward
College leaders and Vermont’s top health official brought clarity, humane understanding, strong support, firm reminders and timely cautions to a Zoom “Town Hall” for Saint Michael’s students Thursday night, covering key updates and answering questions about COVID-19 cases on campus and the best path forward in view of them.
Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine, a panel of student and faculty leaders from the campus group SMC CAN! (COVID Action Network, organizers of the Town Hall) and Saint Michael’s President Lorraine Sterritt joined student life, public safety, Wellness Center and academic affairs representatives for the reassuringly informative and mostly upbeat session that lasted just over 90 minutes starting at 6 p.m.
Organizers invited and encouraged students to submit questions in the Zoom question box, and close to 100 questions ended up being posted, with the most representative and relevant choices getting answers during the live Zoom; SMC CAN! plans to follow up as needed afterward on remaining questions. At the peak of the event, nearly 280 viewers signed on to watch or participate.
SMC CAN! Students Kristin Burlew ’21, Mackenzie Traska ’21 and TJ Sangare ’23 opened by saying a key reason for holding the meeting is that as of Thursday night, campus had 44 COVID-positive cases as posted on the website dashboard, with 140 students in quarantine as possible contacts, giving rise to a variety of questions.
For the opening “Vermont Health” portion of the meeting, the hosts first welcomed Dr. Levine, whom President Sterritt called “our state’s own Dr. Fauci.” For those familiar with Vermont Gov. Phil Scott’s and Levine’s regular broadcast press conferences on COVID, Levine was characteristically warm, straightforward and knowledgably science-based in his presentation and answers.
He answered an early question about the relative meaning of terms like “case,” “spike” or “outbreak” by saying the public health approach is the same for any situation, however one terms those situations – always a containment strategy with tests showing cases initially, followed by interviews, isolation of the person, contact tracing and quarantine for those determined to be at risk, to protect the greater population.
A question for President Sterritt noted how some students question or doubt the effectiveness of the so-called PCR tests that Saint Michael’s is using. This COVID-19 test detects genetic material of the virus using a lab technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Sterritt said the tests are very well respected, used by many colleges, and have shown “very high accuracy.” Levine expanded, giving a history of testing and CDC mistakes early on about the best test approaches, but said they went back to the drawing board and sorted it out. He explained the evolving science ever since that leads him to stay PCR tests are now seen as the “gold standard” more than antigen tests, “but if students have doubts about the test used on them, they’re right that no test is perfect — but they should have some faith about the fact that you are using quality tests in a quality lab, maximizing the potential to give a quality result.”
Mary Masson, Bergeron Wellness Center director, said that watching the tests play out in real-time “is validating” that the tests are quite accurate since clusters of traced contacts from positives with no symptoms initially will typically eventually show some cases within a week or so among a cluster.
One student questioner wondered how close one has to be to someone to be considered a “close contact.” Levine said like so many things with COVID, the best wisdom on that is evolving – it was long widely thought to be six feet for longer than 15 minutes, but Vermont experiences in prisons led to CDC changes recently based on experiences with transferred prisoners showing that cumulative time in proximity, even beyond six feet, appears to be more a factor than thought previously.
Answering another question on the difference between isolation and quarantine, Levine and Masson clarified how isolation is for students with positive tests, while quarantine just means people who are traced contacts with those positive cases, and so are set apart to let the incubation period run its course before another test can be made to release them if they turn out not to have been infected. Masson said ironically, students in isolation in a separate campus space together because they’ve tested positive can actually see each other since “you can’t get more positive,” while those in quarantine need to stay singular, which everybody recognizes is challenging but doable with support.
Asked if students swabbing their own noses versus using professionals to swab are as valid, Masson and Levine said test providers watch the self-swabs, which turn out to be typically quite valid, with maybe only one to three cases in 1,000 not getting a good sample and needing a redo. It’s working well, they said.
Asked if students who have had COVID are immune, Levine said “I wish I knew – it’s the million-dollar question. We don’t know the answer yet.” Common wisdom is that re-infection is rare, but possibly variant strains of the virus might make it more possible.
A questioner asked Sterritt about online vs. in-person classes and plans before the break. The president said while she hopes it can go back to in-person, the big deciding factor will be the major round of tests set for Saturday, October 31, with results expected by Sunday, and so classes will be all remote on Monday for sure, just in case late results trickle in. . . . The results will determine the path forward. “Stay positive and test negative!” Sterritt said with a smile, noting faculty and staff are prepared to complete classes one way or another this semester and academic year, whether it is online, in person or a mix, based on the test results.
She said weekly testing on Wednesdays will occur up through November 18 to allow management of positive cases and contacts, and if anyone tests positive, they could not travel. “We would support them here over Thanksgiving,” she said.
Student TJ Sangare asked Levine for his best-informed guess on a good vaccine being available. The doctor said it’s like a horse race for government “bettors” among vaccine developers, with the government betting on the most promising several candidates with early investment so that large volumes of doses can be produced early, prior to full testing, in case they turn out to be valid and safe through the full course of tests. “I suspect it will be mid to late next year we will have enough vaccine to go around to satisfy the need,” he said, calling that a conservative estimate, with a remoter possibility that something might start to be available before the end of this calendar year, though a long-shot. An issue is that about 50 percent of the population might not take the vaccine, Sterritt said she had recently heard, asking Levine how much that worried him, and Levine said it worries him a lot since, to achieve “herd immunity,” experts believe 60 to 70 percent need to be immune, which will take a lot of vaccinations since the alternative path would be a surge of cases that would be deadly. He said a change of administrations soon might build confidence in the coming vaccines, which could help.
A student asked the president to be clearer on confidentiality and repercussions surrounding COVID on campus. Sterritt stressed that the overwhelming majority of St. Mike’s students are doing a very good job understanding the seriousness and distancing, though “we’ve had some lapses.” Dawn Ellinwood, student affairs VP, said “when we have information they haven’t been following guidelines, people will be held accountable.” Jeff Vincent of student life spelled out sanctions based on the campus code of conduct, so that removal from campus has even been used — but both emphasized that any information about violations did not come from contact tracing, and would not — and also, that, in Vincent’s words, “because you are positive does not mean you are getting in trouble. This this about protecting our campus and making good decisions.” All stressed the importance of students being honest about contacts and symptoms since there is “no connection between being held accountable and telling the truth for the well-being of the community.”
Sterritt said in response to a question that administrators have “no magic number” of cases that would trigger a shutdown of the College since it is a function of enough space for isolation and quarantine, “and now we are well within the capacity.” Dr. Levine wrapped up his part of the Vermont health portion of the town hall before signing off by saying, “together we can coexist with this virus and live some semblance of the life we want to live,” using common sense and following simple effective guidelines. “Don’t have any big Halloween parties!” he said in parting.
The remainder of the Town Hall covered the following broad areas, with some key information summarized briefly in bullet points here:
- Ellinwood assured students about meal delivery and encouraged anybody getting the wrong meals to be in prompt contact with the round-the-clock student life staffers there to help them; she applauded the work of Sodexo through the pandemic. She said Student Life is taking an “all hands on deck” approach to the coming Halloween weekend “with plenty of programming online.” Ellinwood could not have been more emphatic or passionate in saying “THERE ARE NO GATHERINGS THIS WEEKEND. WE CANNOT AFFORD TO INFECT EACH OTHER!”
- Public Safety Director Doug Babcock stressed the need to be partners in countering COVID risks for students with his staff. He said his staff also will be around 24-7 with regular patrols, continuing to respond to dozens of LiveSafe app tips from students coming in each day, with action taken where appropriate or possible in partnership with Student Life. Said Jeff Vincent, “Let’s have the mindset that each individual has a commitment to the safety of each community member.”
- Ellinwood said when the Thanksgiving break comes, provisions are in place if need be that a very small amount of students can stay on campus as happened in March when COVID struck — though Vincent said, “the goal is to get everybody home.”
- Masson emphasized that “testing is not prevention,” and that by testing “you don’t necessarily have 100 percent reliability that you will walk off campus virus-free.” That means after the last test round on November 18, continued mask-wearing, small groups only and continued diligence to guidelines are so vital so that no virus is being sent off campus to other parts of the U.S., she and Ellinwood said.
- Ellinwood said for anyone testing positive on the last test, “Well be here with you however long you need to be here and walk alongside you — we will not send you home if you are positive,” though Masson said a small number since March with special circumstances allowing them to be safe and isolated at home have been permitted to drive home alone after close conversations.
- Ellinwood said since voting is deemed essential, students in Vermont will be allowed to leave campus to do so, under great care and guidance if need be; she said absentee ballots for those out of state was the best option, and she hoped students had availed themselves of such options.
- Vincent, Masson and Counseling Director Kathy Butts acknowledged how hard it is for those in isolation to be unable to go outside, but for the time being, it is just a necessary thing, they said, and students will be carefully and vigorously supported. “There’s a tremendous amount of stress,” acknowledged Butts” — a pandemic, elections … and life as a college student is already full of stressors; we’ve never seen anything like it, so we want students to know we’re here to provide support.” Online conversations each afternoon and creative student ideas on managing healthily through all this to share with one another are helping, Butts said.
- Vincent and Babcock talked in some detail about the limits on sizes of groups in different residential situations and the need for mask-wearing even among a group in a residence in circumstances even when it is not just the resident pod of people present, in case that was not clear. One student was happy the staff acknowledged that sometimes students just forget to wear masks down the hall in a residence hall for, say, a bathroom run, and it is not intentional, as some questioners or staff might have complained about.
- A major point for Babcock and Vincent was not allowing guests to campus at all, and they explained for a questioner why faculty and staff and vendors come to campus and are effectively checking in and staying safe though on the honor system essentially, under different terms than students’ situation.
- Vice President for Academic Affairs Jeffrey Trumbower clarified how course selection will go for the spring semester, with options for remote learning from home, remote from campus, or in-person/hybrid possibilities.
President Sterritt wrapped up the session by saying “It’s prevention, prevention, prevention!” She said her colleagues at other colleges have been amazed at how long Saint Michael’s managed to have no cases, and she appreciates all the sacrifices that made that possible and still make a workable situation on campus possible with the relatively low and manageable number of cases at the moment.