With fewer students wearing masks, the absence of plastic green boxes, and weekly saliva tests, eased Covid-19 restrictions have hinted towards a return to the pre-pandemic atmosphere. But the recent surge of Covid-19 cases on campus serves as a growing reminder that the pandemic is still among us. According to an email to The Phillipian from Dr. Amy Patel, Dean of Health and Wellness, Chief Medical Officer at the Rebecca M. Sykes Wellness Center, 91 students have tested positive since September 1, and 220 close contacts have been identified.
Although there have been instances of Covid-19 cases on campus throughout the pandemic, Patel confirmed that the current number of cases remains within the expected range. Due to the return to pre-pandemic campus policies and activities, an increase in positive cases is to be expected.
“One of the shifts between this year and previous years is that we know we are going to see [Covid-19]. If we don’t mask every single day in all spaces, we know we’re going to see transmission because we have an open campus,” said Patel.
In previous years, close contacts were identified as all individuals in the same classroom and dorm as those who tested positive. According to Patel, this method was ineffective at identifying those most likely to contract Covid-19, often leading to hundreds of people being listed as close contacts when only a limited number would actually be exposed. In response, Sykes has narrowed the definition of a close contact to focus on people whom the most transmission has been observed from data collected over the last two years––namely roommates, nearby dormmates, and friends.
“We have found, especially with the Omicron variant, that the biggest risk factor for transmission is close proximity [and] more intimate or household contacts… I think it’s important to note that in Massachusetts, there is no more contact-tracing program… So we ask students who test positive to think back to the 48 hours prior to testing positive and ask [who would qualify as a close contact]… The average is about four, 3.8 actually, close contacts for every student who tests positive,” said Patel.
Students who have tested positive for Covid-19 are encouraged to be picked up by their families if they are within driving distance; if being picked up is not a feasible option, students are held in isolation at Sykes, where both their physical recovery and mental health are prioritized.
“Mental health is equally important, if not more important at this point because we have focused so much on the physical health of students… We’ve instituted behavioral health screenings so that we can ensure that we’re asking questions about student mental health when they come in,” said Patel.
According to Oliver Kim ’26, who stayed in Sykes for five days, students with Covid-19 are able to socialize regularly. Some of the activities include hosting movie nights, going outdoors, and ordering takeout.
“It’s pretty relaxed [in Sykes]… [Keeping up with classes] is definitely a lot more difficult. But so far, it’s only the second week of school… [and] after online schooling, everything is online anyways… It’s not too bad staying in Sykes if you’re not too sick,” said Kim.
Some students have expressed dissatisfaction with Andover’s precautionary protocols. Tulah Jefferson ’24 felt that with measures such as requiring testing before the opening of school, the recent surge of Covid-19 on campus could have been avoided.
“I know they did mention [that] everyone should test at home, but it wasn’t mandatory and they [didn’t require] an email of proof or anything… I feel like a lot of people are close contacts at this point but wearing masks isn’t being mandated around campus. So I think that leaves a little bit of room for people to get Covid-19,” said Jefferson.
Patel defends the school’s decision against school-wide testing. In her opinion, while in the past testing has proved beneficial, it now does not seem necessary. Students who are symptomatic will continue to be tested, and an emphasis is put on students making smart decisions about masking and testing if they experience symptoms.
“If we’re starting to find that there’s a particular event [after which] we see a spike, we would then have to evaluate protocols… We try to be preventative at all times and at some points we might see a little more Covid-19 than we really want to, and then we have to scale back a little bit. It’s going to be a constant push-pull balancing our ‘new normal’ campus protocols with Covid-19 protocols,” said Patel.