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In-person events at McMurtry cancelled with five students testing positive


By Prayag Gordy     10/12/20 12:24am

Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman cancelled all in-person events at McMurtry College starting Oct. 2 after three off-campus students and one on-campus student from McMurtry  tested positive for COVID-19. Gorman made her decision in conjunction with the McMurtry magisters and the Rice Crisis Management Team.

In addition to cancelling in-person events, Gorman had McMurtry students test twice a week for the weeks of Sept. 28 and Oct. 5. This week, McMurtry students are only testing once, McMurtry magister Jenifer Bratter confirmed.

Since Aug. 1, McMurtry students account for at least seven of Rice’s 19 undergraduate COVID-19 cases, according to Kevin Kirby, chair of the Crisis Management Advisory Committee and vice president for administration.

Three McMurtry students tested positive during the week of Sept. 21, one student tested positive the week of Sept. 28 and one additional student tested positive following Gorman’s decision, according to Jerusha Kasch, Rice’s director of institutional crisis management.

According to Kasch, contact tracers believe that at least some of the new cases were connected.

“We’re pretty certain [the source of the spread] is off campus,” Kasch said.

Gorman said the apparent spread between members of the Rice community prompted her to cancel McMurtry’s in-person events.

“[Community transmission] was what really led us to be sort of more intensive with asking the college to stop any social activity, any scheduled social events, which was something we hadn't done at another college,” Gorman said.

McMurtry President Carolyn Daly said she agreed with Gorman’s decision.

“This was an administrative decision made due to the information they had regarding our college community's health and safety,” Daly, a senior, wrote in an email to the Thresher. “I support the decision, given the circumstances.”

Bratter said she is pleased that McMurtry students are ending their quarantines without new cases.

“Those are very encouraging metrics,” Bratter said. “I think those are definitely numbers that are going in the right direction.”

Gorman said she hopes to soon lift the restriction on in-person events at McMurtry “in the near term.”

“Testing this week has gone very well, [though] we want to run out the time a little bit longer,” Gorman said. “I don't expect [a restriction on in-person events] to be something that would be at all long term.”

Contact tracing

Rice’s contact tracing team — 28 staff members who collectively speak seven different languages — are among the first to respond to Rice community members who report symptoms or test positive for COVID-19, according to Lisa Basgall, the Infection Control Group supervisor on the Crisis Management Team.

“Most of the time, people will fill out a health reporting form and report themselves to have symptoms of illness,” Basgall said. “If one of our testing partners reports somebody has a positive test, they would share that information with us, and then the contact tracing team would reach out to the subject themselves.”

From there, contact tracers follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to find and notify those who may have been exposed.

“The CDC standard for contact tracing is that we're looking for a 48-hour window post a positive test, or a 48-hour window post the first onset of symptoms,” Kasch said.

Contact tracers then classify immediate contacts as primary and more distant contacts as secondary.

“We evaluate who's a primary contact, who's a secondary contact. We may get information on secondary contacts, but we may not reach out to them,” Kasch said. “We're looking at that first circle, because that is what the CDC says is really our focus point for contact tracing.”

Finally, contact tracers ask those exposed to quarantine, which generally lasts for 14 days and for on-campus students usually takes place in their room or another room in their college. According to Basgall, the contact tracing process is quick, often taking between ten minutes and an hour. The length of the process, Kasch added, often depends on how much the infected person remembers and how much they are willing to share with contact tracers.

“That's highly dependent on the work and thought that the person who may be positive or ill has done about their surroundings,” Kasch added. “Being clear about where you were and what you're doing, or being honest, has also been a problem.”

Kasch and Basgall repeatedly emphasized honesty as crucial to their work as contact tracers. Telling contact tracers about a breach of the Culture of Care will usually not result in disciplinary action, but lying to contact tracers may.

“If they're not being truthful, because they're afraid of getting in trouble, that's a problem,” Kasch added. “That puts our entire population at risk, and I don't put up with that. I will turn that in, and I will do it rapidly and it will go directly to the dean of undergraduates.”

A localized response

McMurtry is not the only college that has modified its routine in response to COVID cases. At Will Rice College during Orientation Week, a few confirmed cases led Gorman to stop cross-college events and to implement a campuswide ban on eating in the commons. Other colleges, including Hanszen College, have been required to undergo double-testing, which Kirby said is triggered by “more than one case that was close in time.”

Gorman said a key part of her ideology is her willingness to let college leadership decide how to handle their local response.

“I'm actually not terribly heavy-handed on this,” Gorman said. “The people that are in that [college] space and understand that space and understand the mechanics of that space and the culture and the traditions — I've been affiliated personally with enough colleges to know that exactly how it operates in one space is not necessarily how it's going to operate in the next.”

Bratter, for instance, made the decision to hold mandatory “COVID talks” for all McMurtry students. In these talks, which were held separately for each floor hall, she and student leadership reminded McMurtry students of the rules and sought feedback.

“I was actually quite inspired by how seriously folks took the information,” Bratter said. “We got a lot of questions about what ways can we minimize risk even further, what ways is this risky, in what ways is that risky. What we didn't get was a lot of pushback on why do we need this and why is this important.”

Rice’s testing capacity — 1,000 tests a day, which accounts for about two percent of daily tests across the entire state of Texas — allows for the early and flexible response that Gorman said she considers important. In addition to a few other colleges, Rice has double-tested groups of people such as Facilities Engineering and Planning employees and the baseball team, according to Kasch.

“We’re really fortunate,” Gorman said. “Our testing team gets a gold star for having secured so much testing for us that we have the ability to [double test].”

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