Spike or Surge? PORT Announcement Reflects Concerning National Trend

By Erin Maxwell || News Editor

Image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University and ABC News.

The subject line, “URGENT- Please read” sent shockwaves through campus this Thursday, Mar. 25, as the Student Wellness Center revealed a disturbing wave of positive tests from earlier in the week. As students raced to reach friends and close contacts to verify their status, specific numbers didn’t arrive until the next day, with a PORT email stating that a “total of 15 students tested positive” cumulatively on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Still, the email emphasized that tests from the latter half of the week were not accounted for.  Saturday’s report added an additional 7 positive tests. As of Mar. 23, there were 21 cumulative cases for the Spring semester and 1 active case. With these additional tests, we are now to believe that there are 43 cumulative cases for the Spring semester, and 22-23 active cases.

Moving off-campus travel to “essential only”, the College decided to remain at the “Moderate” alert level for on-campus purposes. Reporting that they did not believe that these cases stemmed from a “super-spreader” event, and instead from off-campus travel and social transmission, this ban on off-campus socialization seems to work against this trend. Although enforcement or accountability measures are unclear, the college has once again highlighted the need to abide by the F&M Pledge, stating that these results show that “the pandemic is far from over”. 

A spike in cases like this one is not without precedent on Franklin and Marshall’s campus. This fall, the campus remained on a “Moderate” alert level, with the last week of this level, the week of Nov. 10, showing 16 active cases. Two days later, on Nov. 12, the college shifted to a “High” alert in response to 26 active cases. In comparison to the current number of active cases being 22-23, the margin between the campus’ alert status seems small. The margin seems even smaller when considering that in the Fall semester, there were 1,453 students in residence or commuting, compared to the 1,376 in the current Spring semester. This lower overall population means that the positivity rate in Fall was only 0.1% higher, as our current positivity rate is 1.7%.

The site of regular testing, F&M’s students visit Mayser Gymnasium twice a week as required by the school. Image courtesy of Erin Maxwell.

Franklin and Marshall’s reported trends are not occurring in a vacuum- all across the country, cases are climbing once again, after three months of somewhat steady decline. Even as vaccines are being rolled out at record speed, Johns Hopkins University reported on Friday that a 12% increase in positive cases was recorded over the last week, including a concerning 2% in hospitalizations. Top health officials warn that the country is now facing a more difficult rival than previously in the pandemic, as increasingly virulent and severe strains from Brazil, Europe, and South Africa, are rearing their heads as a growing proportion of new COVID-19 cases. Ashish Jha, a public health researcher at Brown University acknowledged that at this stage in the pandemic, “we know it’s a race between vaccinations and variants” (NPR).

Still, top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has emphasized that variants aren’t the only factor to blame. State officials across the country are pre-emptively rolling back capacity limits, social distancing requirements, and even mask mandates in some areas. Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus coordinator, has also pointed the finger at a pandemic-fatigued public, who have increasingly flaunted public health measures. 

A nurse administers a COVID-19 inoculation at a mass vaccination center on March 12 in Ridgeway, Virginia. Image courtesy of NPR via Getty Images.

This national trend, as has occurred in the past, reflects a delayed mirroring of the current situation in Europe. After the widespread lifting of restrictions, Europe is now introducing increased lockdowns in response to their third wave, with public officials expressing remorse for loosening restrictions preemptively. Weeks ago, U.S. scientists predicted that new variants would cause an upward slope, and with this prediction coming to fruition, health officials are sounding the alarm. CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky expressed imminent concern at a press conference this week, stating that “we know from prior surges that if we don’t control things now, there is a real potential for the epidemic curve to soar again” (CNBC).

The community spread or lack thereof at Franklin and Marshall this weekend will directly impact the nature of this Spring, as PORT clearly states that F&M could move to “high alert immediately if warranted”. As the campus waits for this week’s results, in-person classes, social gatherings, and residential guests are on the chopping block. Mask up, F&M.

Sophomore Erin Maxwell is the News Editor for the College Reporter. Her email is emaxwell@fandm.edu.

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