UMass Amherst Looks Ahead to Spring, Having Established a Proven Infrastructure to Test for COVID-19 and Protect Public Health

When plans for the Fall 2020 Semester were being developed, UMass Amherst created a new Public Health Promotion Center (PHPC) and committed to launching a comprehensive asymptomatic testing program to mitigate COVID-19 within the campus community. What in August was a new endeavor undertaken in unprecedented times is now a highly respected model that has played a key role in protecting public health, having conducted 160,832 COVID-19 tests by semester’s close of classes on Nov. 20.

Today, the PHPC stands as the sixth-largest testing center in Massachusetts, and Gov. Charlie Baker has turned to UMass to also launch a major community testing program at the Mullins Center starting Dec. 14. Many challenges remain in the months ahead, but the university has established a proven infrastructure to monitor COVID-19 and help mitigate its spread.

George Corey, M.D., executive director and medical director of University Health Services, said, “The fall semester was very successful at controlling the spread of COVID-19 across our university community, on campus and in the surrounding towns. The hard work and sacrifices of all members of the community in using face coverings, physical distancing, and deferring gatherings, allowed our public health efforts to succeed. There is a vaccine on the horizon, but there are surging numbers across the country. The continued efforts of every member of the university community will be essential over the coming months.”

“The massive amount of testing and contact tracing is a testament to the hard work of so many people and cross-disciplinary collaborations, including the College of Nursing, the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, University Health Services, Public Health, and Information Technology,” said Ann Becker, co-director of the PHPC and public health director. “Consistently high levels of testing throughout the UMass community – both on campus and off – have been essential to our rapid and robust response.”

Assessing the Testing Data

Jeff Hescock, executive director of environmental health and safety and emergency management, and co-director of the PHPC, noted that asymptomatic testing at the Mullins Center accounted for 97.8% of tests, while the remaining 2.2% were symptomatic testing at University Health Services (UHS). This wide-scale testing program reached 14,726 unique individuals, including 8,620 undergraduate students during the Fall Semester.

Testing revealed 404 individuals positive for COVID-19. Of that number, 380 (94.1%) were students and 24 (5.8%) were faculty and staff. The cumulative positivity rate, defined as the total number of cases divided by the total number of valid tests, was 0.25% for UMass Amherst. That compares with the state positivity rate of 3.4% on Nov. 20, when classes concluded.

For confirmed cases, the median response time between receiving test results and the start of case investigation was 2.1 hours – notably faster than local, state or national standards. Andrew Lover, assistant professor of epidemiology and a core member of the university’s Public Health Response Team, said, “The nurses and contact tracers worked tirelessly, including nights and weekends, to ensure that case investigation and contact tracing were completed efficiently and effectively to protect public health in local communities.”

Among students, the confirmed case count varied by living location. There were 353 cases among students living off campus and only 27 cases among students living on campus.

However, as Laura Balzer, assistant professor of biostatistics and a core member of the Public Health Response Team, noted, “Denominators are essential. Comparing raw case counts can be misleading; we need to account for the amount of testing done.”

The positivity rate was highest, at 0.43%, among students who live off campus and did not have in-person courses. The rate among students living off-campus, but having in-person courses, was substantially lower at 0.14%. Among students living on campus, the positivity rate was even lower at 0.11% – both among students with in-person courses and among students without in-person courses.

Safety of Classrooms

To safely open for the Fall Semester, the campus implemented a wide range of health and safety measures, including in classrooms, as well as an extensive testing, contact tracing and quarantine/isolation protocols. In addition, an ambitious public health promotion campaign was launched to educate the community about best protective practices. During the summer, a dedicated academic space planning team evaluated each of the academic spaces and developed guidance for each class. For each student who wore their masks, tested positive, and had in-person classes, there was no evidence of any classroom transmission. “This is the result of the work of the Academic Space Planning Team to set up the classrooms, as well as students and faculty following the testing protocols and adhering to the public health measures,” said Hescock.

In addition, the PHPC also provided fully supported on-campus quarantine and isolation accommodations for both on- and off-campus students and completed more than 10,000 individual wellness checks for the physical and mental wellbeing of individuals and close contacts.

During the Fall Semester, Hescock, said the PHPC has continually evaluated public health measures, reviewed best practices, and planned improvements for the Spring Semester. The PHPC will expand its operations and conduct additional tests as the campus plans to support additional students in the spring in alignment with the directive of Gov. Baker.

Deputy Chancellor Steve Goodwin noted, “Over the semester, we have learned many important lessons about designing, implementing, and managing a large-scale public health response. While Spring Semester will present new challenges, I am confident that we will quickly adapt and respond in order to keep our UMass family – students, faculty, staff and our host community – safe in the weeks and months ahead.”