UVM expands quarantine housing as Covid cases climb for the semester

Mercy Hall on the University of Vermont’s Trinity Campus. Photo by Ivy Kirby/Vermont Cynic

Emme Pinezich and Ella Ruehsen are news reporters for the Vermont Cynic, where a version of this article was first published

The University of Vermont is adding an additional on-campus location to quarantine students after nearly 80 tested positive for Covid-19 in the first two weeks of the semester.

In an email sent Sunday evening to UVM students, Vice President for Operations and Public Safety Gary Derr said the university is adding a quarantine space in Mercy Hall to help curb the spread of Covid among the student population. 

The move to Mercy, located on the Trinity Campus, will displace the 62 students living there now and put the majority of UVM students who are in quarantine on the outskirts of the main campus and closer to Burlington residences.

“The provision of quarantine space, combined with rigorous contact tracing, is critical to successfully containing the spread of the Covid-19 virus in the residence halls,” Derr said.

The announcement comes after 36 on-campus and 10 off-campus students tested positive for the virus between Feb. 8 and Feb. 14. The week before, 32 students tested positive for the virus. 

Only 99 students tested positive for the virus during the entire first semester. If just 22 positive test results are reported in this week’s testing cycle — to be released Monday evening — UVM will have surpassed last semester’s case count in just the third week. 

Despite the rising case count, school officials say their Covid mitigation strategy has been effective and successful.

In his letter, Derr said that more than half of last week’s new positive student cases were already in quarantine when their status was confirmed. 

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“And, while this move will not affect a large proportion of our community,” he said, “it’s important for you to be aware of recent changes.”

In a Feb. 17 email that followed rising student and parent concerns voiced during a UVM Strong meeting the previous Thursday over increasing cases, Vice Provost Patricia Prelock and Derr defended the school’s “aggressive surveillance testing program.”

In that email, UVM also announced it has begun using rapid testing in certain instances to supplement weekly PCR testing. 

Derr and Prelock emphasized the success of UVM’s testing strategy, noting that UVM’s on-campus Covid-19 tests account for almost 23% of all tests administered in the state since the beginning of the pandemic. 

While touting UVM’s success in containing the spread of the coronavirus within the campus community, the officials did acknowledge the university is still struggling with student compliance.

“The combination of masking and distancing and avoiding social gatherings works,” the Feb. 17 letter said. “Most of the positives we have seen appear to be the result of lapses in following these basic protocols.”

Gary Derr, vice president for operations and public safety at the University of Vermont. UVM photo

In addition to defending the university’s success following rising concern from students and parents over the numbers, the email also reiterated the importance of following Covid-19 safety precautions.

“We write now both to put that number in perspective, but also, importantly, to remind everyone of the critical importance of all Covid protocols,” the officials said. “Now is not the time to let our defenses down but rather to recommit even more strongly to our shared goal of another successful semester.”

Derr and Prelock acknowledged that students and community members have inquired about UVM reaching its capacity for housing students who are in isolation or quarantine, but they denied that is the case.

“We can assure you that we have not reached capacity,” they said, “and that we have taken action between semesters to improve the experience for our students.”

They also encouraged students to get vaccinated as soon as they can, although the state and university have not yet provided details on how student vaccination rollout would proceed

“Getting the population vaccinated is a critical step in bringing the pandemic to an end,” their letter said. “Additional information about vaccines is available at the Vermont Department of Health vaccine webpage and from the CDC’s vaccination webpage.”

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Emma Pinezich

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