COVID-19 cases are once again surging on campus. As of Oct. 12, Kenyon’s COVID-19 Dashboard displayed 32 active student cases and three active employee cases, though it is unclear whether more cases will arise once test results come back following the October break. These case numbers are a marked increase from two weeks ago, when the College reported only six active cases following baseline testing of the student body.
This increase marks the second large outbreak on campus since students returned in late August, bringing the semester total to 189 student cases in less than two months — a stark comparison to the total of 67 student cases over the entire 2020-21 academic year.
According to Professor of Biology Joan Slonczewski, elevated levels of viral RNA in campus wastewater samples confirm an increased presence of active COVID-19 cases on campus. “We are in the middle of a rising outbreak,” they said.
Despite such a rapid increase in cases, testing remains largely optional, with no plans to enact mandatory testing for all students.
“We don’t have a plan to do additional baseline testing at this moment,” Vice President for Student Affairs Celestino Limas said. “But of course, every situation is fluid and we want to make certain that we’re making decisions as we go.”
In Slonczewski’s view, current testing procedures are insufficient to prevent outbreaks. “If practices don’t change, it is likely that the entire campus student body will at some point be contacted by this virus,” they said.
For Slonczewski, the spread of COVID-19 is particularly concerning considering the chronic nature of the disease’s symptoms, as opposed to the common cold. “At the end of the year, I would encourage everyone to get a full physical exam to be aware of any [potential] long-term effects,” they said.
On Sept. 30, the College announced a four-level framework to guide campus policies. Each subsequent activity level places more health and safety restrictions on student life. The campus is currently operating at Level 2.
Limas said that the spike in cases has caught the attention of the College’s COVID-19 Steering Committee. Still, he said the Committee has no plan to change the activity level at this time, as they consider more factors than just the number of cases when determining changes to campus restrictions.
“It really is a pretty holistic model that we’re trying to employ when we discuss things about when we’re going either up or down in activity,” he said.
According to Slonczewski, universal rapid testing has an important place in comprehensive testing strategies. They suggest replacing quarantine with multiple rapid tests as one means of controlling outbreaks.
“The problem with [not testing asymptomatic people] is that you are most infectious to others before you have symptoms. The College is missing the most infectious cases,” they said. “So instead of quarantine, test everyone three times over three days [and then test close contacts].”
This strategy is known as the “test-to-stay” procedure, in which testing replaces quarantine for close contacts. While not approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this approach has proven effective in trials.
President Sean Decatur said that at this time Kenyon is not considering using rapid tests, and cited the possibility of false positives as a key reason.
Both Slonczewski and a Knox Public Health (KPH) COVID-19 hotline nurse emphasized that rapid tests are accurate, though not as accurate as PCR testing. The nurse also noted that false positive results are much less likely than false negatives, reiterating the importance of retesting those who test negative.
Currently, vaccinated asymptomatic students can access up to one Everlywell self-administered test a week. The number of students accessing tests has increased each week since the kits have been made available, according to data provided by Chris Smith, director of the Cox Health and Counseling Center. Between Oct. 11 and 13, 245 students registered Everlywell kits, just under 13% of the total campus population. This is a dramatic increase from the first week optional Everlywell tests became available, when students registered only 100 tests.
Still, Smith suggested that testing alone is not a silver bullet.
“If the world could have tested their way out of COVID-19, the pandemic would be over,” he said.
Despite Smith’s suggestion, some colleges and universities have employed more stringent testing protocols and seen fewer cases. Amherst College is testing all students, full-time staff and faculty twice a week regardless of vaccination status, and currently has no active student cases. Smith College is likewise testing students twice a week, and has had four positive results in the past week. Brown University requires undergraduate students to be tested once a week, and currently has eight active student cases.
However, Kenyon faces a unique situation compared to these East Coast colleges and universities: Knox County’s vaccination rates are among the lowest in the country, and more exposure to the virus in areas of low vaccination causes more breakthrough cases to occur.
This rise in cases on campus has once again placed a strain on Kenyon’s isolation housing. According to Limas, the College has not added any new isolation housing since the last outbreak. The current isolation housing options include 20 rooms at the Comfort Inn and spaces around campus including the Kenyon Inn, the Pines and Zipp House. The College also continues to encourage students to travel home to isolate if they are in a position to do so.
Despite this rise in cases, families will still be permitted to arrive on campus for Family Weekend on Oct. 22, though they will not be allowed to enter Peirce Dining Hall, student residences or academic buildings. According to Decatur, Family Weekend activities are consistent with current practices on campus, with many events being held outdoors or with reduced capacity. He also said the College is working to set up livestreams of events in case indoor events meet capacity. This will also allow family members who are unable to travel to Gambier to participate.
“I’d say that, if we do stay at the current state of things, we’re not anticipating any other changes needed next week,” he said.
Looking forward to Thanksgiving break, Decatur urged students to get tested before returning home. The College is still considering requiring re-entry testing when students return from Thanksgiving break.
“I know the COVID Steering Committee is talking that through in terms of what that looks like, and there should be word on that coming out later this month as we get closer to Thanksgiving,” Decatur said.
Testing is available to symptomatic students through the Cox Health and Counseling Center, and Everlywell self-administered testing kits are available for all vaccinated students up to once a week in the Gund Commons Mailroom.