Feb 12: When We Will Email and What We've Learned
Message to Davidson students and community from the Core COVID Response Team:
We’re three weeks into this semester and we hope that classes are going well for you.
We (the COVID team) know that you’re likely tired of our emails. From now on, we’ll send them out when we have important information for you, and we will send updates that recap what we’ve learned.
What we’ve learned:
First, students want to hang out in small groups AND this virus spreads on our campus when students are together indoors without masks. We can trace nearly all of the viral spread to unmasked activity. Very small numbers can lead to significant spread: 3 people take their masks off in a room and soon 9 people test positive and 23 people are in quarantine.
So please, wear a mask. This is the single most important thing you can do to keep yourself and other people healthy and out of quarantine.
When you want to hang out or study with a small number of friends, here are some places you can do that.
- The tent outside of Commons (it’s heated).
- The Union.
- The library, Wall Center, or Chambers.
- Look for food trucks, fitness classes, and other activities.
When you meet with a small number of friends, here’s how to keep everyone safe:
- Wear a mask all the time. Commit to this in advance.
- Sit six feet apart.
- Do not share food.
Second, regular testing doesn’t mean you can break the rules. A negative COVID test means that at the time you got your nose swabbed, the virus was not detected. You could be exposed five minutes later. Or, you could have been exposed the day before and the virus is not yet detectable. Testing helps us identify and care for people who test positive and contain the spread. It doesn’t mean we can break the rules. Testing works to keep the community safe when we also mask up and stay six feet apart.
Third, even if you have had COVID, you still must follow the rules: wear a mask, stay six feet apart, and no visitors in your room or apartment. You can get re-infected and even if you don’t get sick yourself you could pass the virus on to others. Until we learn more, everyone follows the rules.
Finally, everyone is tired. We’ve been at this for almost a year and we’re all sick of it. It’s tempting to look for someone to blame. But blame isn’t going to change the situation. Please remember, we’re in this together. Let’s do our part to keep everyone safe: mask up, stay six feet apart, and meet up safely and in accordance with the guidelines.
Feb. 10: COVID Variants
Message to the Davidson community from the Core COVID Response Team:
We wanted you to know that the lab that processes our COVID tests has identified three cases of the United Kingdom (British) variant of the virus among our positive tests. The students tested positive several days ago, as it takes time to perform the sequencing needed to identify the variant. Those students’ close contacts were placed into quarantine back when they tested positive. Our contact tracing and quarantine has been working effectively, and many of our positive test results are coming from students already quarantined away from the rest of campus.
However, as you may read below, the variants – of which there are at least four of concern – will continue to reach campus. While the viruses are slightly different, the way to prevent them remains the same: a mask, 6 feet of distance and washing your hands.
To help understand the variants a little better, we asked Dave Wessner, biology professor whose post-doctoral research focused on coronaviruses, to offer some insights on questions we received before this latest development.
Q: COVID variants have been identified, not just in the United Kingdom, but in South Africa, Brazil and Los Angeles – all of which have spread around the globe. Will we see more of them? (North Carolina’s state epidemiologist said last week that the British variant likely will gain a larger share of the infections in the state.)
A: It was almost a guarantee that one or more of these variants would appear in Davidson, and now we know that the U.K. variant was identified here. The South African variant has been detected in South Carolina and the U.K. variant has been detected elsewhere in Mecklenburg County. And the U.S. has not been aggressively sequencing viral isolates. So, if these variants have been identified with only minimal sequencing efforts, that suggests that these variants are more widespread.
Q: Are the variants more dangerous than the original strain?
A: That depends on what you mean by more dangerous. The U.K. strain appears to be more transmissible than the original strain, but disease probably is not more severe (or not significantly more severe). Of course, if it’s more transmissible, then more people will be sick, which will increase the burden on healthcare facilities. That’s a danger. The same is true for the South African variant. It appears to be more transmissible, but probably does not cause a more severe disease. And, the question of vaccine efficacy needs to be considered. If the vaccines are less effective against these variants, then that is another measure of danger.
Q: Are they more easily transmitted?
A: Most likely, yes. There have not yet been good studies measuring the transmissibility of these variants, but observations suggest the U.K., South African, and Brazil strains are more transmissible. In the U.K., the prevalence of variant B.1.1.7 increased rapidly during the last couple months of 2020. That suggests it spreads more rapidly than the earlier strain. It’s worth noting, though, that basic non-pharmaceutical interventions – wearing a mask, remaining physically distant, washing your hands – continue to work. Although these variants may be more transmissible, the mode of transmission has not changed.
Q: The head of the World Health Organization on Monday expressed concern over news that vaccines might not be as effective against the variants. The same day, the Associated Press reported that people who have had COVID-19 could get re-infected by the variants. How will we ever get this disease under control?
A: The vaccines do seem to be less effective against these variants. But there are at least two pieces of good news. First, “less effective” does not mean ineffective. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are highly effective against the original strain of SARS-CoV-2. So, even though these vaccines are less effective against the new variants, they still will provide some protection. We should remember that the annual influenza vaccine often is only 60-70% effective. The two SARS-CoV-2 vaccines now in use were starting at 95% effectiveness. Second, these vaccines should be pretty easy to redesign to match new variants. Moderna already has plans to test the effects of a third booster shot and/or a vaccine designed specifically for the South African variant.
There have been documented cases of reinfection throughout the pandemic. With the variants, it does seem that reinfection may become more common. The Brazil variant seems to be the most troubling. It’s been reported that a majority of people in Manaus, Brazil were infected in the spring of 2020. Yet, there has been a big wave of infections recently. One explanation is that people are being reinfected by the variant.
Again, it depends on what you mean by “under control.” Most experts agree that SARS-CoV-2 won’t go away. It probably will become endemic, a commonly occurring infectious disease that we need to deal with, like the four other coronaviruses that regularly infect us or influenza virus. Some infectious disease experts have predicted that, over the course of many years, it will become a virus that people get several times as children, providing them with enough immunity that they rarely experience severe disease upon infection as adults. But the immediate issue is slowing down the spread now, through vaccinations and mitigations efforts.
Q: Do you have some encouraging news?
A: The progress we’ve made has been extraordinary. We should remember that the first reports of this new disease occurred at the end of December 2019. Now, roughly a year later, we have several very promising vaccines. Yes, the loss of life and human suffering has been tragic; we should never forget that. But the scientific progress really has been remarkable.
A special thank you to Professor Wessner for this help. You can read more from him on the variants in these articles:
Feb 1: COVID Message About What We Know
Message to Davidson students from the Core COVID Response Team:
The COVID case numbers on campus are unsettling. We get that and share your concern, and that’s why, especially in these first few weeks, we all need to be very vigilant.
Even with pre-arrival testing, we expected there would be some positive cases on campus. It can take up to two weeks after exposure for the virus to be detectable. And testing is a snapshot—at the moment you took the test, you were COVID negative. So, testing is crucial but alone it will not work.
Here’s what our community needs from you:
Leadership: Follow the safety protocols – no indoor gatherings, don’t go eat at restaurants, maintain only your roommate(s) as close contacts, wear a mask, stay 6 feet apart, wash your hands, use the symptom app – and remind your friends and fellow students to do the same.
Persistence: Follow these protocols all the time.
Patience: There is light out there, in the distance. This pandemic will end. We need to do our part now to get to that light as quickly as possible.
Trust: The COVID team and many, many people on campus are working to fulfill the mission of the college under very difficult circumstances. The medical team does aggressive contact tracing and we re-evaluate existing protocols daily as we learn more about how this virus spreads.
Here is what we know:
- Contact tracing works. Among the last 21 positive tests, 14 were among people already in quarantine. Four of the remaining seven were among those under enhanced precautions, which means contact tracing did not identify them but they were placed under stringent restrictions out of an abundance of caution. That means 18 of the last 21 positive tests were among people who already had been restricted from interacting with others on campus before they tested positive.
- Many of the current cases come from failing to follow guidelines: holding indoor gatherings, eating at restaurants or having multiple close contacts.
- Contact tracing has not revealed a single case of transmission from in-class instruction.
- Masks work.
Equally important is that we not inaccurately pit ourselves against each other. Davidson’s distinctive quality is our community, our humane instincts, our genuine concern and help for each other. That is especially needed in these stressful times.