November 12, 2021 | NEWS | By Hank Bedingfield, Iona Ellsworth, and Isabel Hicks | Photo by Anil Jergens
The week of Nov. 3 to Nov. 9 saw 88 positive tests out of the 1,649 administered, reigniting peak-pandemic anxieties for many students and forcing others to rethink travel plans as the fast-approaching Thanksgiving Break butts up against a 10-day isolation period for some.
Colorado College required community members to get vaccinated against the virus for the 2021-2022 academic year, and 96.7% of the student population complied, according to the college’s COVID-19 dashboard. Despite this, a high community transmission rate in surrounding El Paso County has exposed the CC campus to the virus despite high vaccination rates.
The college campus has now exceeded the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment definition of an outbreak — two or more confirmed cases of COVID-19 in a facility or group with onset in a 14 day period — by a landslide. The recurring questions seem to be, what happened and why now?
On Friday, Nov. 5, the COVID-19 Policy and Implementation Committee offered their answer with an email saying that the rise in infection was connected to “large social gatherings.” Four days later, on Tuesday, Nov. 9, the committee sent another email saying that the rise was connected with off-campus parties over Halloween weekend.
“It’s a cluster of cases all connected to Halloween parties,” said Andrea Bruder, the chair of CC’s Scientific Advisory Group and Chief Public Health advisor. “We’ll initially see an increase in numbers, but then we’ll see a decline and a return to that base number of cases per week that we were seeing before.”
Yet some students have noticed behavior around campus that suggest additional causes for the outbreak. At least one wonders if the recent spread could be linked to mass indoor gatherings taking place at hockey games in the new Ed Robson Arena.
“Look at all the photos and videos from a hockey game,” said Isaac Yee ’24, a student who tested positive on Tuesday, Nov. 9 despite not having attended any Halloween parties. “You’ve got local Colorado Springs people [as well as students with] with masks on their chin. It’s all on video, and [yet] the [college] is blaming Halloween parties where [40-50] kids are considered a big event. [Meanwhile, in Ed Robson], you have 3,000 people.”
Yee was additionally shocked by the COVID committee’s failure to give him adequate guidelines for limiting his own spread of the virus.
Last academic year, COVID-positive students and their close contacts were often sent to Bijou West, a motel a few miles off campus, to complete their isolation period. The school no longer contracts with Bijou West, so most students who live on campus and test positive are told to isolate in their rooms, if they have nowhere to go off campus.
“[My roommate and I] weren’t told anything about using a separate bathroom,” said Yee, who is currently quarantined in South Hall with his roommate who also tested positive. “There were kids [with COVID] using the same bathroom as [everyone else], which is probably how I got it.”
Yee ultimately decided to hang a sign on one of the gender-neutral bathroom doors, designating it for those who had tested positive. “It’s pretty bad that students have to take it into their own hands to stop the spread,” Yee said.
The surge in cases has also caused confusion about the continuation of in-person classes.
Despite a Nov. 9 email from The COVID committee stating that classes will continue in person, many students have returned to Zoom for the foreseeable future in direct response to the outbreak. A poll conducted on The Catalyst Instagram page that same day found that over 70 students had their classes move to a virtual format.
Reverting to a virtual format is a disappointment for many students. “It sent me into a bit of a panic for a while before I wrapped my head around the fact that things are different now,” said Chili Hopkins ’22, whose block was threatened to transition online. “I was really worried that it would mean a return to similar circumstances to that of last year, during which my mental health was terrible, my life was a mess, and I hated my social scene.”
Bruder addressed some of those concerns, voicing that the school has no plans to implement another shutdown like the one in March of 2020.
“A faculty member who may have students in isolation or quarantine has to make these decisions individually to see what will work for that class,” Bruder said. “We’re not planning to send anybody home.”
Some professors, like Professor of Political Science John Gould, appreciate the school’s persevering approach.
“I appreciate that the school has not set up a rigid, one-size-fits-all protocol for faculty,” said Gould. “There is no handbook to accommodate all this variety. We are collaboratively writing the book here.”
Professor Emily Chan of the psychology department feels confident in her classroom’s ventilation system thanks to her use of an Aranet4 carbon monoxide monitor, which gives her constant information about the airflow of the room.
“I know I am not at heightened risk of getting COVID [while teaching],” Chan said. “I feel more comfortable knowing we are not breathing the same re-circulated air.”
Concerns over classroom safety, despite reassurance from the COVID-19 Policy & Implementation Committee that, “We have no indication of COVID-19 transmission in classrooms,” in a Nov. 9 email, continue to mount for some students who doubt the breadth of contact tracing efforts.
Hopkins noticed a lack of contact tracing in classroom settings. “I was, you know, definitionally in contact within six feet of people who had tested positive and I wasn’t contact traced. That’s a little concerning to me.” he said. “When there’s things as big as like seeing your family or traveling at stake here, they could afford to be probably a lot more thorough than they’re being.”
The COVID committee’s contact tracing system uses certain metrics to identify which students should be contact traced in the event of a positive test result. “The close contact definition is if the person was within six feet of the person who received the positive test result for fifteen minutes or longer cumulatively over 24 hours,” Bruder said.
However, because this outbreak is so overwhelming El Paso County Public Health (EPCPH) has intervened to assist CC in contact tracing positive students. In an encrypted email obtained by The Catalyst, CC’s Lead Contact Tracer Nicole Turner outlines this new reality.
“Unfortunately, with the high volume of positive cases at the moment, our team is unable to contact trace everyone in a timely manner. The El Paso County Public Health Department has offered to assist our team with these calls,” she said.
For COVID-positive students wondering what to tell friends and peers they may have exposed, Turner said, “Your contacts are advised to schedule an appointment to receive a COVID-19 [test] only if they are symptomatic. If they are not, they should continue with randomized testing at this moment.”
One student who wished to remain anonymous for medical privacy tested positive on Monday, Nov. 8. She received a phone call from EPCPH the next day, but took on most of the contact tracing responsibility herself.
“Basically, the school didn’t contact trace me,” she said. “I think some of my roommates in particular are frustrated, just because they have no professional guidance outside of me telling them what I think they should do. In terms of going to class, I think it’s a little bit like all the responsibilities on them.”
Voicing their concerns in an anonymous Instagram response poll, students let out a flurry of questions: “What do I do as an out of state student? Is it best to leave before break?” “Policy for close contact without symptoms?” “What will next block look like?” “Why is contact tracing completely inconsistent? Why are students denied PCR tests?” “Why aren’t professors receiving guidance on when to move online?”
For students doing their best to cope with a turbulent year, with the latest COVID outbreak, many are left with more questions than answers.