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Williams College Sees COVID-19 Numbers Spike
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:12AM / Tuesday, January 04, 2022
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — As Williams College on Monday began its first Winter Study since 2020, the school is reporting one of its highest COVID-19 positivity rates since it began a testing program in August 2020.
 
The college already last week announced measures to help mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus in anticipation of this weekend's return of students to campus.
 
On Monday afternoon, the school's "COVID-19 dashboard" was reporting a 3.41 percent positivity rate over the last seven days and 40 positive tests among students and staff in the last seven days.
 
To put that last number in context, the school has had 154 positive results from its mandatory testing program since it began in August 2020. That means about 26 percent of all positive results in a 17-month period were in the seven-day period ending Sunday.
 
A Williams spokesperson Monday afternoon said college officials were expecting an increase in COVID-19 infections.
 
"As we watched the spread of omicron we knew we'd need to manage our campus return process carefully," Williams Chief Communications Officer Jim Reische wrote in response to an email seeking comment. "That's why we set up a strict, mandatory arrival testing program. Every student immediately isolates in their dorm room when they get to Williams. They have to remain in their room until they receive two negative COVID tests. If they test positive, we move them into a dedicated isolation space where we can care for them while reducing the risk of spread.
 
"Given the global, national and regional outlook (Berkshire County is seeing a higher daily case rate than at any previous point during the pandemic), an uptick in cases is something we sadly expected. The numbers indicate that we're identifying many of these cases early in our efforts to triage, treat and minimize the risk. We expect we'll see more such cases as students return to us from a world that has yet to get COVID under control."
 
The most recent rate of positive tests is not the highest the college has seen. On March 27, 2021, it reported a seven-day average positivity rate of 4.96 percent. That average quickly fell to 3.11 percent one day later and was down to .06 percent by April 1. 
 
In terms of students, the 5.43 seven-day case average reported as of Jan. 2 is the highest case rate Williams has seen. At the height of the March 2021 spike in test positivity, the college had a rolling seven-day average of just two cases among students.
 
The latest positive results, dated Sunday, Jan. 2, do not cover the bulk of the student population. The college reopened its testing center for campuswide mandatory tests on Sunday, Jan. 2 and won't see those results back until Wednesday, Reische said.
 
Nevertheless, there were 30 positive student test results reported Jan. 2 from the limited number of students who were allowed to be on campus during the holiday break.
 
The positivity rate at the college continues to trail that of the wider community. Massachusetts' seven-day COVID-19 positivity rate is 18.4 percent; Berkshire County's rate, which is only updated weekly, was 5.44 percent for the last 14 days as of Dec. 29, according to the commonwealth's website.
 
A Dec. 30 message from Williams President Maud Mandel announced some new restrictions for students returning for Winter Study, a monthlong period that began Monday, concludes on Jan. 27 and leads into the spring semester that begins Feb. 2.
 
"[T]he first week of classes and other events will be held remotely so as to allow for students to move through one negative test before convening in larger groups," Mandel wrote. "We recognize this poses a hardship for many faculty, students, courses, and programs and again ask for your patience as we seek to bring a large number of people back to campus."
 
Following their initial test upon returning to campus, students are required to quarantine in their dorm rooms until they receive a negative COVID-19 test, the president's email reads.
 
"Students can leave their rooms to pick up to-go food from the dining halls and to spend time outside (either alone or with others), but they must eat the food outside or in their rooms," she wrote.
 
"After one negative test, students are no longer required to quarantine but should continue to wear masks inside all buildings, including the common spaces of their residence halls, until passing a second negative test. After clearing two negative tests, students must continue to mask in all locations except their bedroom or common room or when they are outdoors. When the dining halls begin to provide eat-in options, students may unmask while eating."
 
The college's athletic department last Thursday announced that for its two home hockey games on Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 1 and 2, no spectators would be allowed.
 
Williams previously said it is requiring boosters as part of its existing COVID-19 vaccination requirement for all members of the college community. Students and staff have until Feb. 1 to comply with the requirement, according to the college's website.
 
All students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, are required to participate in the college's testing program: twice weekly for students and once weekly for staff. Anyone who is not fully vaccinated or who has obtained an exemption must test twice weekly.
 
And, in a change announced last week by Mandel, any staff in "high contact jobs with close proximity to students and children," such as dining services or the college's daycare, will be required to test twice per week.
 
More than 97 percent of the college community has submitted proof of vaccination, according to the school's website.
 
"Like you, I am frustrated and tired by nearly two years of struggling against this problem. Unfortunately, the pandemic is not behind us," Mandel wrote last week. "Therefore, we must continue to adapt our policies to reflect the changing realities and continue to work together in the best interest of the health of our community."
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