Eyes on the dashboard: Case numbers reach record heights as students return for in-person classes

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Days before the College of William and Mary resumes in-person classes for the spring semester, the College faced record spikes in COVID-19 positive cases on campus, causing concerns among students, staff and administrators.

As of Monday, Feb. 8, there were 46 active COVID-19 cases among students in Williamsburg. There were only 16 active cases Monday, Feb. 1, representing an increase of 187% over the previous week. There have now been 72 total cases this semester, in addition to 64 pre-arrival positives.

“The numbers are higher than our enviable numbers were in the fall. That said, our positivity rate continues to be low, especially compared to the region, which is 11%, whereas we are in the one percent range.”

“The numbers are higher than our enviable numbers were in the fall,” Vice President of Student Affairs Ginger Ambler ’88 M.Ed. ’06 said. “That said, our positivity rate continues to be low, especially compared to the region, which is 11%, whereas we are in the one percent range.”

The rapid increase in positive tests coincides with the return to campus of sophomores and juniors as part of the semester’s delayed move-in this past weekend. In-person classes are expected to resume Wednesday, Feb. 10.

College spokesperson Suzanne Clavet said that rising case numbers are concentrated within small clusters of students. She added that positive cases have primarily been detected by students self-reporting test results, not through the College’s prevalence testing.

“Through our case management, what we are seeing is exposure and spread among individuals who have gathered in small social settings and therefore want to remind members of the community to not gather in groups of more than 10 — especially indoors, to continue to wear masks, and to practice physical distancing.”

“Through our case management, what we are seeing is exposure and spread among individuals who have gathered in small social settings and therefore want to remind members of the community to not gather in groups of more than 10 — especially indoors, to continue to wear masks, and to practice physical distancing,” Clavet said in an email.

The increase in COVID-19 cases has also affected Tribe Athletics. Associate Athletics Director Pete Clawson said that a member of the women’s basketball team tested positive for COVID-19, prompting many students, coaches and trainers to enter quarantine.

“During our regular COVID-19 testing within the team (which takes place three times a week), a positive test was confirmed within the Tier 1 of the women’s program (Tier 1 is defined by coaches, student-athletes and athletics trainers),” Clawson said in an email. “Once any positive test is confirmed within Tier 1, this triggers an automatic response of this entire group of people entering into quarantine.”

The Colonial Athletic Association announced Thursday, Jan. 28 that the College had suspended all women’s basketball activities in accordance with COVID-19 protocols. Games against Towson Jan. 30-31 and James Madison Feb. 6-7 were postponed indefinitely.

Clawson said members of the Tier 1 community must quarantine for a minimum of 10 days.

“Per the campus Path Forward protocol, the affected individuals are isolating for at least 10 days,” Clawson said. “William & Mary is also working with close contacts of those individuals to arrange self-quarantine for 10 days; the university has a dedicated team of case managers to help all the affected parties navigate isolation and self-quarantine.”

According to Ambler, the College has prepared 102 rooms in Richmond Hall for quarantine and isolation housing, as well as 150 rooms in off-campus accommodations, including at local hotels. Ambler said that an additional 150 off-campus rooms could be converted into quarantine and isolation housing if needed, providing capacity for slightly over 400 students.

While students have speculated that occupancy in Richmond Hall is nearing capacity, Ambler said that as of Feb. 5, Richmond Hall still has rooms open for on-campus students in need of quarantine and isolation housing.

“Contrary to some of the rumors, Richmond Hall is not full,” Ambler said. “We have still plenty of space in Richmond Hall, and we also have off-campus space on stand-by should we need it. Based on the numbers that we’re seeing and what we can imagine, we feel confident that we have plenty of quarantine and isolation housing.”

When cases began rising last week, the College sent several text alerts and emails to students warning them of their commitment to the Healthy Together Community Agreement and threatening disciplinary action against students who break the College’s COVID-19 conduct standards. Employees and staff members have received similar messages from administration — there now are five active COVID-19 cases among employees.

“I must be clear — there will be consequences for violations of the Healthy Together Community Commitment (HTCC),” Ambler said in a Feb. 5 email to students. “I urge you, therefore, to review and fully re-commit to the expectations outlined in the HTCC. W&M remains committed to due process in responding to violations. At the same time, given this global crisis in public health, we cannot permit students to remain on campus and behave in ways that endanger the safety and welfare of others.”

Ambler said that on-campus and off-campus students should make every effort to reduce their number of ‘close contacts’ — people they see for longer than 15 minutes without wearing masks or social distancing. When asked whether off-campus students could be penalized under the Healthy Together Community Commitment for socializing in small groups without abiding by COVID-19 safety protocols, Ambler said she was not sure how the College’s conduct processes would handle cases regarding off-campus students, instead urging students to avoid creating close contacts in the coming weeks.

“I would much rather that students focus less on ‘Am I going to get in trouble for this?’ and far more on ‘Is this in the best interest of the people I care about, my community and myself,’” Ambler said. “That really should be the question.”