With the designation of Amherst by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health as a “red,” higher-risk community for COVID-19, we want to assure you that the University and the Town, working together, are committed to ensuring the health and safety of every member of our community.
We are issuing this joint statement to keep community members informed about the steps we are taking and to assure you that Town and University leaders take this development seriously and continue to work in partnership. In fact, the Town-Gown Working Group was established for just this type of situation and it has met to discuss the change in designation. State Senator Jo Comerford and State Representative Mindy Domb are integral participants in the group.
The actions of both the Town and the University are guided by the best public health protocols, and we strive to be in alignment with state and federal guidance.
Specifically, the Town and the University employ testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine protocols, and educational initiatives as the main tools for addressing the pandemic. In addition, there are mask-wearing requirements in Town and on campus. The Town is steadfastly enforcing its bylaws, and the University has conducted extensive outreach, public health messaging and educational efforts to engage with its students. Officials from the Town and UMass meet weekly to discuss behavioral trends, and students have been referred (often by Town officials) to the University’s conduct process for repetitive or egregious behaviors.
Through it all, the Town and the University are committed to transparency and consistent communication to ensure the safety of the UMass family and the Amherst community at large.
In the Five College area, we live in communities that do not restrict movement and access. We may see further spread of COVID-19 into the community as we get into the colder months. All of us must work together, remaining vigilant through social distancing and wearing face coverings.
Our detailed efforts are as follows:
The University’s extensive asymptomatic testing program, located at the Mullins Center, has extended services to include Amherst’s first-responders and is among the largest operations in the state. The UMass testing center has conducted more than 77,000 tests to date, and only Boston, Worcester and Cambridge have done more in the past two weeks. For a community of our size, this massive operation has understandably revealed, in overall numbers, more positive cases than in other communities, many of which do no testing at all. For context, however, it is important to keep in mind that despite our red designation, our positivity rate at 0.42% for the past two weeks is well below the state rate of 1.04% during that same period of time. Keeping our overall numbers down and minimizing community spread are central to our joint efforts to protect the community.
An important component in containing community spread is contact tracing. This critical work is made more efficient and effective by both the speed with which test results are available and the level of cooperation by individuals. Because UMass receives direct notification when a test is positive, from either the Broad Institute or University Health Services, the University’s contact tracing team of 50 individuals is able to respond rapidly. The Town’s Acting Health Director is a public health registered nurse who oversees a team of registered nurses who conduct contact-tracing for non-University related cases in the Town.
Isolation and Quarantine
Once someone has been identified as having been exposed to the COVID-19 virus, they are placed in quarantine for a minimum of 14 days. If someone has tested positive for COVID-19, they are isolated from other people for a minimum of 10 days. Since the start of the semester, the University has designated on-campus facilities to provide isolation and quarantine housing for affected UMass students. The Town provides support and guidance, including food and rental assistance for those not connected to the University.
Public health professionals advise that educating the public and maintaining trusting relationships is key to effective testing and contact tracing. Outreach efforts by the Town and University such as the “knock-and-talk” door-to-door visits, the COVID Ambassador program, and the COVID-19 telephone and email hotline have been successful in connecting with many members of the community.
Many have asked for more aggressive intervention by the Amherst Police Department regarding off-campus group gatherings. While Police continue to respond to noise complaints and issue citations for violations of the Town’s bylaw, Police are not utilized – and are not empowered – to enforce the Governor’s order on the size of gatherings.
We believe that if community members, students in particular, fear there will be onerous penalties for being associated with an outbreak, they will be far less likely to cooperate. In addition, leading public health experts advise that fear-based messaging and punishment erode the trust that is necessary to encourage good public health behavior and produce the best outcomes. It is for these reasons that both the Town and the University have resisted calls to take a more heavy-handed approach in enforcing public health protocols.
It should be noted that the Town continues to enforce all Town bylaws and the University’s Dean of Students Office will continue to hold students accountable for violations of the University’s Code of Student Conduct.
We believe it is important that Town and University officials work together to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in our community.
Kumble R. Subbaswamy
UMass Amherst Chancellor
Amherst Town Manager