COVID Testing at UMass Identifies Cluster of Positive Cases

UMass Amherst public health officials released data during the past week that shows a cluster of 33 UMass students who live off campus tested positive for the novel coronavirus. All are known to have socialized together, and a number of them attended a party together.

The case investigation is ongoing and close contacts have been notified to get tested for COVID-19 and placed in quarantine. Those who tested positive are in isolation. All students are being supported in their needs. 

The university is working closely with Town of Amherst public health officials to monitor the matter and do continued outreach to students to deter spread of the coronavirus. This includes a comprehensive educational program as well as neighborhood “Knock and Talks” in which UMass and town representatives follow up on complaints to emphasize appropriate behavior and share information on safe gatherings.

University officials emphasize that experience shows the most effective way public health practices are education and frequent testing. Emphasizing a confrontational approach can be counter-productive and deter participation in contact tracing efforts. However, if students are involved in egregious or repeated acts in violation of the UMass Amherst Community Agreement, such matters are forwarded to the Dean of Students for review and potential sanction under the Code of Student Conduct.

Brandi Hephner LaBanc, vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life, in a message to students thanked them for their overall adherence to the public health guidance issued by the state, the town and the university. 

She also noted, “What you do matters. The work of planning for the spring semester is under way, and the next several weeks may play a significant role in shaping the decisions we make. Our goal of repopulating the campus and resuming in-person operations relies on each and every one of us doing our part. If the numbers continue to rise at the pace they did this week, our return to more normal operations may be further delayed. Testing, while extremely important, tells us whether someone is infected, but it does not protect a person from becoming infected.” She advised students to avoid parties and gatherings, wear face coverings, and to get tested.

Jeff Hescock, executive director of Environmental Health and Safety, observed, “We want to emphasize that all students living in the Amherst area should come in for asymptomatic testing at the Mullins Center twice a week," he said. “Testing, while extremely important, tells us whether someone is infected, but does not protect a person from becoming infected. Good public health practices are critical to the success of preventing COVID transmission.”

The university’s asymptomatic testing program is one of the largest in the state. UMass Amherst has conducted more than 62,000 tests since Aug. 6, including approximately 35,000 tests in the off-campus student population living in the Amherst area. The university’s cumulative positivity rate is 0.13 percent, but the weekly positivity rate has risen to 2.76 percent due to the recent cluster and other positive tests. Full details can be viewed on the university’s testing dashboard.