President Sean Decatur announced on Friday, Oct. 23 that the College will maintain the moderate alert level it entered on Oct. 16, and will extend the quiet period until Monday. This announcement comes after continued, elevated levels of COVID-19 in Gambier’s wastewater and rising cases in Knox County, which had prompted the initial increase in alert level last week.
As a result of this status change, the College tested all on-campus students over the past week. The College has currently received 566 results from the 912 students it tested between Monday and Thursday, all of which came back negative. “This certainly is welcome news, but I regret that it is not yet a full enough picture to ease restrictions on campus,” Decatur wrote in the News Bulletin Friday. “The campus will remain at a moderate level of alert at least through Monday Oct. 26, when we hope to have all or most student test results.”
Gambier detected elevated levels of the wastewater from a sample taken Oct. 8, which the College said prompted the quiet period on Oct. 16. Since then, there have been three other samples taken, each of which showed elevated levels of the virus, although none exceeding the Oct. 8 sample.
According to Professor of Biology Joan Slonczewski, who chairs the Wastewater Testing subcommittee of the Public Health Working Group, Gambier saw a similar trend in July, when the Village had several cases.
The “moderate alert” protocols outlined in Decatur’s Oct. 16 announcement will remain in place over the weekend, as test results are pending. As part of these precautions, Peirce Dining Hall will no longer be open for indoor seating, athletics will be suspended and visitors to campus will be restricted. In-person classes, however, will continue as scheduled with existing precautions.
In Friday’s announcement regarding the extension of the quiet period, Decatur also said that, for the first time since the semester began, the College will also test employees for the virus beginning next week. The College will now test half of the student body each week, so each student will be tested twice more before their departure on Nov. 25.
The College’s continued alert status comes as cases continue to rise across the state and county. The state of Ohio experienced a record number of cases last week: On Oct. 15, a day before the College entered moderate alert status, 2,178 Ohioans tested positive for COVID-19, more than any single day since July. Since then, Ohio cases have continued to rise, with a record-breaking 2,518 Ohioans testing positive on Oct. 23. As of Oct. 23, there are 389 cases total in Knox County, 45 of which are active cases. Gambier has had 16 cases thus far, all of whom have recovered. Kenyon has accounted for four of these positive COVID-19 test results — one of which is an active, employee case — and three students currently in quarantine, during seven weeks of in-person instruction.
Despite the elevated levels of the virus and increase in statewide cases, Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92 stressed that Kenyon made the decision to reinstate restrictions out of “an abundance of caution,” noting that the College has garnered recognition nationally for its efforts in protecting the community.
“The COVID Steering Committee will continue to evaluate wastewater results, individual testing, and local/state COVID cases in order to determine the College’s alert level status,” Bonham wrote in an email to the Collegian Friday evening. “The current situation is very fluid, and to the greatest extent possible, we want to make decisions based on data while being exceptionally mindful of the health and safety of our campus.”
Slonczewski was careful to note that the wastewater results do not necessarily represent cases among Kenyon students. While the College contributes to about ¾ of Gambier’s wastewater, the sample reflects the entire Village community, including employees who commute to Gambier for work. Decatur also acknowledged this in an interview with the Collegian, pointing out that those who contribute most to the wastewater are those who live in the Village. “[Wastewater testing] is most likely to pick up virus that’s being shed by people who are spending substantial amounts of time in Gambier,” he said.
Source Molecular is the lab that has tested Gambier’s wastewater twice a week since June, according to Slonczewski. A wastewater sample taken on Oct. 8 showed the first elevation in levels since July, of which Source Molecular notified the subcommittee on Wednesday, Oct. 14. After another wastewater test showed elevated levels of COVID-19, Decatur sent the Oct. 16 News Bulletin announcing the College’s additional precautionary measures. Levels of COVID-19 were still elevated on Oct. 12, and increased again in both the Oct. 15 and Oct. 19 samples, particularly in the latter.
Increased viral presence in wastewater samples is a potential predictor of symptomatic cases, particularly samples with above 500 copies of viral RNA per liter, according to Slonczewski.
“There were four reported cases in July, after several signals of wastewater above 500 copies per liter,” they said, referencing the cluster of cases from the summer.
Slonczewski noted that wastewater testing does have room for error, with only a 70% chance of correctly detecting the virus. However, the upward trend in virus levels on both dates suggested that the Oct. 8 results were not in error. “There’s just no way that that’s a mistake,” they said. “There has to be one or more cases out there if you see levels above 500 [copies per liter].”
As of Oct. 23, no additional students have tested positive for the virus. However, if more tests return positive, Smith noted that the first steps would be to isolate infected students and employ the Knox County Health Department to carry out contact tracing.
Decatur said that the College will not immediately send home any additional students who test positive.
“If you have a bunch of people who have just been exposed, or who’ve potentially been exposed, sending them back all over the country is probably not the most responsible public health response,” he said. “So the best practice recommendation is to quarantine in place until there’s a sense of it being safe for people to go home.”
The College has promised to update the community on the situation by Monday, by which time it expects to have received the remaining test results from this past week.