Taking Stock of Our Health and Safety Efforts in Fall 2020
TO: The NYU Community
FROM: Dr. Carlo Ciotoli, MD, Executive Lead, COVID-19 Prevention & Response Team and Jack Briggs, Vice President, Global Resiliency and Security
DATE: October 6, 2020
Dear NYU Community Members,
It has been several weeks since the start of fall classes for most academic programs. It seemed an opportune moment to take stock of the health protocols we put in place, how they seem to be working, what we have observed so far, and what questions may have arisen.
Our priority is the safety and well-being of every member of the NYU community.
With that as a starting point, over the summer we worked to develop a multi-layered plan that would allow us to reconvene in New York for fall 2020. The plan, we understood, could not eliminate all the risks from COVID-19; however, we determined the plan – through elements such as wide-scale testing, contact tracing, rules about mask-wearing and physical distancing, and enhanced cleaning, to name just a few – would enable us to reduce the risks of COVID-19 for those who would return to campus.
Our plan, and many other aspects of our COVID-19 response, can be found on the NYU Returns Web Hub.
How It’s Going So Far
The objective of our planning and preparations – to be able to reduce the risk of COVID-19 reasonably and effectively – has resulted in no significant outbreaks. Our observations, including feedback from our Public Health Ambassadors, is that overall there is a high degree of compliance with our safety and health rules.
Wide-ranging testing is a key element of our plan. Infection with COVID-19 is often unaccompanied by symptoms, particularly in young people. Routine, mandatory testing allows us to detect the presence of coronavirus in our community regardless of whether it is causing symptoms, and respond quickly.
Our first step was to test each NYU community member before they returned to campus – what we called “arrival” or “gateway” testing. Nobody is allowed on campus without first getting tested at least once. During the week of September 7, we began “ongoing” testing, which involves regularly testing everyone who is on campus or interacts with other NYUers.
Altogether, since August 1, NYU has conducted over 53,000 tests of students and employees; our rate of positive findings is 0.35% – lower than the City as a whole, and the surrounding neighborhoods. Understanding where we are relative to the broader community is important to us, too. New York’s current status is a hard-won change from last spring’s heart-breaking circumstances (even with the current set of neighborhood spikes), and we should contribute to maintaining those gains. And New York’s low case rate in turn helps our community – NYU does not live in isolation from the city. Low local rates of transmission make outbreaks less likely within NYU, and vice-versa; that’s why spikes of transmission in some NYC neighborhoods are a current source of concern.
There have been some small glitches. These include some difficulties encountered in opening the test kit packages, or in following instructions about activating or returning the test samples. There have been a small number of occasions when the demand for test kits has exceeded the supply at one or another distribution site. Though compliance with the testing program has generally been high, there have been some instances of tardiness or non-compliance. And we are trying to work out protocols for those whose frequency on campus requires testing but whose infrequency makes picking up a test kit a challenge. But, overall, the testing program is proceeding well.
New York State Supplemental Guidance
In late August, the State of New York, no doubt cognizant of spikes in COVID-19 at other universities that opened earlier than NYU did (and which, in many cases, did not take some of the steps we did, such as a mandatory quarantining and mandatory testing), issued additional guidance (PDF). In essence, it set thresholds for colleges and universities in New York State – the lesser of either 100 cases or 5% of the population at any of a university’s NYS-designated locations (in NYU’s case, there are nine) within a 14-day block – for temporary suspension of in-person instruction.
We are, of course, keenly conscious of that count, which is reflected in our testing data dashboard. As the number has approached that threshold for the Washington Square campus, we have been in touch with New York State, which has indicated that we can currently carry on as we have been. We will continue to closely monitor and report the case count, and will stay in contact with New York State authorities about appropriate next steps. We will, of course, communicate any changes to the campus community.
What We’ve Seen Here and at Other Universities – Looking for Patterns
The information we receive from the testing is invaluable in maintaining the health of the NYU community.
First, positive tests trigger our contact tracing process – even as we move to isolate the individual, we also reach out with questions to identify individuals with whom the positive person has been in close contact and therefore might be at higher risk for COVID-19 infection. We then follow up with those people who meet the NYS Department of Health definition of close contact (typically those who have spent more than 10 minutes within six feet of someone positive), and arrange for quarantining of those close contacts.
Contact tracing involves balancing the legally-mandated privacy of individual medical information with the public health interest in preventing the spread of the coronavirus. This means that notification doesn’t go to everyone who might conceivably have been in the same space as or had casual contact with an individual who tests positive for COVID-19, but only to those whose interactions are determined to meet the definition for close contacts.
Clusters and Patterns
In addition to the contact tracing process, we also scrutinize positive findings for patterns – for instance, does a cluster of positives seem to emanate from a single event, student residence, classroom, or a workplace?
Other universities have seen significant outbreaks related to crowded gatherings (often parties) where there was little or no mask-wearing or physical distancing. These have garnered significant public attention. NYU has not seen such an outbreak. Indeed, interestingly, although we continue to see some positive results from our testing, we have generally seen very little evidence of transmission within our community.
In mid-September, our testing program identified four positive cases in Rubin Hall, a residence hall housing approximately 400 first-year undergraduate students. Out of an abundance of caution, and in consultation with the NYC Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, we placed all residents of Rubin Hall under a precautionary quarantine; later results indicated four more cases. Some of them appeared to be connected to an informal hangout that had occurred in a common space within the residence hall. Our swift actions seemed to stem the outbreak and later testing of the entire Rubin community showed no further infections.
We know that many faculty are concerned about transmission in the classroom, particularly as they think ahead to the spring semester and the mode in which they plan to teach.
We have been scrutinizing the data carefully for evidence of classroom-based spread when we have positive findings. So far, among all the positive cases we’ve seen involving individuals with in-person classes (both student and faculty), we have little or no evidence of classroom transmission. These findings are consistent with my discussions with my counterparts at other universities: classroom transmission does not appear to be a notable source of COVID-19 spread on campuses.
That is not to say there should not be concern. Concern is understandable. But at this juncture it appears as though the combination of conscientious mask-wearing, physical distancing, density reduction, access control, hygiene, and HVAC adjustments, along with a generally low positive rate is effective in preventing classrooms from being a locus of transmission.
Isolating and Quarantining
Isolating those infected with COVID-19 and quarantining close contacts are also important elements in our efforts to check the spread of COVID-19. At this stage, our resources – in the form of empty rooms we set aside in the student housing system for this purpose – remain sufficient, but we are monitoring it closely.
One area of concern has emerged: repeated quarantines or isolation. Between the two-week quarantine we required before classes of those coming from hot-spot states or from abroad, our prompt decision to quarantine Rubin when we had a small number of cases, and those who have tested positive or been close contacts, we are now seeing modest but increasing numbers of students who have had to quarantine or isolate more than once.
The public health guidelines on quarantining and isolating are strict, and it is not fun – particularly if you have had to do it more than once. We thank all those who have quarantined and isolated so conscientiously – please know that your efforts safeguard many, many others. And while we cannot shorten or forego quarantining, we want students to know that we are aware of the issues and are looking to improve the way isolation and quarantining are handled.
As we indicated, the protocols we have in place appear to be working fairly well for our community and have enabled us to make a good start to 2020-2021 and our return to campus. However, we should be aware that there are likely additional challenges coming.
Possible Changes in COVID-19 Transmission Rates
Having passed through the challenges of last spring, New York has a notably low case rate among US cities (although, as noted above, there are certain neighborhoods experiencing spikes currently). While the more prominent narrative currently is about how colleges may be affecting case rates around them, a change in the case rate in the surrounding community could, conversely, have an impact on the NYU community.
Cold Weather and Flu Season
The arrival of cold weather correlates with an increase in respiratory illnesses, especially colds and flu. We see it every year at NYU’s Student Health Center.
This year it presents a special challenge, however. The symptoms for the flu and other respiratory ailments are similar to COVID-19’s. Currently, our practice is to treat those with respiratory symptoms as presumptive cases of COVID-19 until a test confirms or disproves it. However, the presentation of more and more people with respiratory symptoms will challenge the resources we have available for isolation and quarantine.
That said, two measures can help us:
- Getting a flu shot: Getting a flu shot is good advice in any year. This year, it may help you avoid having to self-isolate unnecessarily (and help NYU preserve bed spaces for those who may need them more). So, please, please, get a flu shot as soon as possible. Employees can find resources here, and students here.
- Mask-wearing, physical distancing, hand hygiene and all the other measures we have put in place to check the coronavirus are also effective in reducing flu transmission.
It is customary for many members of the University committee to travel home for the Thanksgiving holiday. Please see the communication sent by Provost Fleming earlier this week about Thanksgiving.
The experience of other colleges that have had to move to remote instruction has reminded us that, notwithstanding the differences in approach that may exist between NYU and those institutions, we could find ourselves in a similar position. We should be humble about our good start. Contingency planning for various scenarios that might make us transition part or all of NYU’s program to remote instruction has been a part of our recent work. We know this is important to the NYU community; we will be adding some details about our contingency planning to the NYU Returns hub and will send a communication on the topic in the coming days.
We want to thank all those whose work over the summer enabled us to put in place the plans that have guided us this fall. And we especially want to thank all the members of the NYU community for the conscientiousness and steadfastness they have shown in observing our safety and health rules. Thanks to your active efforts, NYU has gotten off to a better start than many institutions of higher learning that sought to reconvene.
There will, no doubt, be challenges ahead. But with care, persistence, flexibility, a spirit of cooperation, and continuing low transmission rates throughout the city, we can succeed.
Take care. Be well.