Sept. 24: Campus Update
Dear Merrimack College Community,
We are writing to you today to update you on the recent COVID-19 cases at Monican Hall and our efforts to mitigate the potential spread on campus. As many of you know and have experienced with your own testing on our campus, Merrimack College has invested significantly in a comprehensive testing and contact tracing program to quickly identify positive COVID-19 cases as well as to minimize the threat of possible campus-wide transmission.
On Tuesday morning, the College made the decision to temporarily move Monican Hall residents into isolation and quarantine and to close the building. Testing results over the previous 24 hours indicated a sudden increase in positive cases of residents in Monican Hall. As a result of that decision, all Monican residents went into a mandatory 14-day quarantine to limit further transmission of the virus on campus.
The reason for such a quick and dramatic decision was to isolate the potential impact on other Merrimack community members and to better understand what was happening in regard to COVID-19 transmission on our campus.
As many of you know, the College spent months and millions of dollars before the re-opening of the campus – planning for surveillance testing, developing campus safety protocols and preparing for the eventuality of a sudden increase in positive COVID-19 cases identified through our surveillance testing program. Over the past several days, that investment, the quick decision to enact pre-determined departure plans for students living in Monican and the willingness of residential students to take additional tests, has yielded the information needed to move forward and to make additional changes to our testing protocols and campus operations to ensure this newly identified cluster in Monican Hall is dealt with quickly, and its impact on the community minimized to the greatest extent possible.
We have now tested over 3,800 community members in the past 72 hours and the results indicate that this cluster does not extend outside of Monican Hall. We are now optimistic with the Monican residents off the campus in isolation or in quarantine, that the campus can stay safely open and fully operational.
It is also important to note, a large percentage of Monican residents were tested as they departed campus for quarantine on Tuesday morning. As expected, the number of Monican positive cases has risen because of the departure testing (47 additional Monican students as of 6 p.m. this evening).
In moments like this, there will be people who become upset or anxious about rising positive cases. The reality is there are positive cases in communities across the country. They exist whether we identify them or not. From our perspective, we want to identify as many positive cases as we possibly can because in identifying them we can isolate those members of our community from the general population, and minimize the risk of their spreading COVID-19 to others.
National modeling on the spread of COVID-19 shows that more people have the virus than have a medically confirmed case as a result of testing. This is because most testing is a result of a person having symptoms – they feel sick, they get tested and the test comes back positive. If everyone who had COVID-19 had symptoms this testing model would be helpful.
As we know, many people who have COVID-19 show no symptoms, especially college-aged students – they have no idea they have it and that they may be spreading the virus. The only way to identify a person who has COVID-19 but has no symptoms – or is asymptomatic – is by running a comprehensive testing protocol that tests everyone routinely. This is why surveillance testing that the Broad Institute is offering is so important in the public health of college communities.
This is exactly what Merrimack is doing. We are running a testing protocol with the Broad Institute and their gold-standard PCR test that identifies all the positive cases, not just the cases that are symptomatic like most communities are doing. Therefore, by design, we will identify more positive cases than most communities because of the scope, frequency and quality of the PCR test we are using.
So why test if it will mean the numbers of positive cases will go up? The answer is simple – it’s not about reporting a number, it’s about what you do with each positive case that is found. As part of Merrimack’s effort, a person who has tested positive goes through a detailed contact tracing protocol to help identify where a possible transmission may have occurred. We then isolate those who tested positive, and quarantine those who might be positive as a result of close contact with a positive case so we get those positives and potential positive people out of the general population. Our campus contact tracing protocol is coordinated by our own Director of COVID-19 Surveillance, a clinician, in concert with the North Andover Health Department and follows the strict guidelines of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This joint and exemplary effort reduces the chance of an outbreak and minimizes the risk to the broader community.
If there is no testing, or testing only those with symptoms, then those who have COVID-19 and yet have no symptoms (or have symptoms and they do not realize it, or ignore them) are still out in the general population and potentially spreading the virus.
So how do you minimize the spread of the virus? You have to implement widespread testing and you have to follow that up with contact tracing and measures to remove positive cases from the general population. We believe this to be the best approach to keeping our overall campus safe – even though we know it will result in more positive tests.
Those who focus only on the number of positive cases miss the point that we are running a public health program at Merrimack College to aggressively identify positive cases in ways most other communities are not.
Regardless of the number of Monican cases, the question the College is seeking to answer about moving forward is has the Monican cluster spread outside of Monican Hall? Early surveillance testing indicators conducted on the entire student residential population over the past 72 hours indicates that it has not. This is not to say there will not be further isolated positive cases of COVID-19. What we do not see at this moment is a community spread outside of Monican Hall residents.
In an effort to maximize the safety of all members of the Merrimack community and to minimize the risk of further transmission, the College is adding additional protocols immediately to actively monitor potential increases in positive cases and to ensure the safety of the campus community. Specifically:
- All residential students, who are not receiving two tests a week currently, will now be required to be tested twice each week over the next two weeks starting tomorrow, Friday, Sept. 24. This means all residential students should keep their scheduled testing time and select another time next week to get tested. Second tests can be done by walking into the testing center – there is no need for an appointment. We suggest trying to have at least one or two days in between your scheduled test and your second test. We will be tracking compliance to ensure everyone is getting two tests each week for the next 14 days. The testing center is open from 7 a.m. - 6 p.m. on weekdays.
- Commuter students, faculty and staff who would like to increase their testing for the next two weeks and get tested twice may do so. Commuter students, faculty and staff should also keep their scheduled testing time and select another time next week to get tested. Second tests can be done by walking into the testing center – there is no need for an appointment. We suggest trying to have at least one or two days in between your scheduled test and your second test. The testing center is open from 7 a.m. - 6 p.m. on weekdays.
- Residential students should do all they can to stay on campus. Leaving campus takes on certain risks, and students who leave campus and return to their residences are at greater risk to contract and transmit COVID-19. Students who must work or go home to help out family are free to do so but should follow strict COVID-19 guidelines of wearing face coverings and social distancing protocols to minimize the risk. Students who want to leave campus for social reasons are strongly discouraged from doing so.
- As a reminder, If you do not feel well stay home or in your room. Do not go to class, and do not interact with others. We know it is tricky this time of year to know what is a COVID-19 symptom, and what is allergies or an early fall cold. Do not take a chance and continue in your day – stay home or in your room.
- While COVID-19 cases amongst college students are more likely to be asymptomatic, meaning there are no signs or symptoms of the virus, all students must continue to check for symptoms daily. Residential students should report symptoms to Hamel Health (978) 837-5411 and commuters with symptoms should contact their primary care physician.
- The College has a policy of no outside guests in any residential area. This includes Royal Crest units. Furthermore, the College’s policy of no guests in residential units from other buildings is strictly enforced. The risk of spread of the virus is minimized by these policies, and they should be adhered to at all times.
- All COVID-19 protocols including social distancing, wearing face coverings, gathering in small groups and practicing proper hygiene are required and will be strictly enforced. These protocols are designed to limit and decrease the probability of spreading COVID-19. Resident students are reminded not to let their guard down as it is important to remain vigilant, especially as we enter the colder months.
We know the vast majority of our students who have tested positive are truly surprised when they receive a positive test result because the vast majority of our COVID-19 positive students are asymptotic and never show signs of having contracted the virus.
There are those who will argue the best way to minimize COVID-19 spread is not to have college students on campus, but we felt as a community that choice was and still is very harmful to our students, their mental health and their educational progress. It would be additionally detrimental to our employees and their families who are already suffering because of COVID-19 as well as the businesses, nonprofits and public schools who rely upon Merrimack and which employ hundreds of our neighbors and friends. Merrimack is an anchor organization in the Merrimack Valley and thousands of people are dependent on us being open, being safe and being present.
We know this entire event has been difficult. It has created anxiety and much worry, but we are very proud of the community, its empathy, and its compassion and its understanding towards each other, but most of all its resilience. We are also very proud of our Monican students. You did nothing wrong. We are sorry that you experienced this and we are looking forward to your return in a few short weeks. Although you are off-campus for a short period of time, know you are missed and we support you one hundred percent.
Our next communication will be next Tuesday evening when we release the College’s weekly dashboard results.
Christopher E. Hopey, Ph.D.
Jeffrey Doggett, Ed.D.
Executive Vice President
Chief Financial and Operating Officer