Emory University appears to have moved past a large surge of COVID-19 cases among students in early September, which saw the highest single-day case total since the beginning of the pandemic.

Throughout September, Emory reported 387 new cases, comprising 324 students and 63 faculty and staff. More than two-thirds of this total occurred in the first half of the month.

According to Associate Vice President and Executive Director of COVID-19 Response and Recovery Amir St. Clair, Emory’s cluster investigation team determined that most transmission took place off campus.

(The Emory Wheel/Gabriella Lewis)

“We’re really good at following protocols when we’re on-campus,” St. Clair said in a Sept. 7 interview with the Wheel during the spike in cases. “We’re just not seeing the same level of diligence and adherence when off campus and that’s why we see that transmission.”

Student case numbers rose rapidly between Aug. 29 and Sept. 2, peaking at 50 new cases (53 total) reported in a single day. Cases then fell sharply over the next two weeks, finally appearing to stabilize around Sept. 16. Since that date, between zero and four new student cases and between zero and six new faculty and staff cases have been reported each day.

As of Oct. 12, over 97% of students and 93% of faculty and staff are fully vaccinated, according to the Emory Forward COVID-19 Dashboard. The percent of positive asymptomatic screening tests among students, which was highest at 4.57% over the week of Aug. 30, was 0.21% during the week of Oct. 4.

Though the Emory Conference Center Hotel, which houses students in isolation and quarantine, never reached full capacity during the surge, Emory did have to begin placing positive students  with roommates in the hotel. This strategy  was necessary to accommodate the volume of students in isolation and also address complaints about social isolation while in the hotel, according to Executive Director of Emory University Student Health Services Sharon Rabinovitz.

“We had a lot of students who were very happy when roommates could go and stay together, or friends could stay together,” Rabinovitz said. “That is something that we would dial up [or] dial down depending on the numbers.”

There was one student in isolation at the hotel and none in quarantine as of Oct. 12. Students are currently not being placed with roommates, Rabinovitz said.

In order to expand testing availability during the surge, student health services began distributing at-home COVID-19 testing kits for those who required a rapid, diagnostic test outside of their operating hours.

“We already have the baseline diagnostic testing in our office, which is a point of care, 30-minute turnaround PCR test,” Rabinovitz said. “But we only can do a certain amount per day, so we, in these surges, wanted to make sure that we can expand access through [test kit] distribution.”

These kits are only available when the demand exceeds the amount of diagnostic testing student health services can perform in office. Rabinovitz said at the moment they are “able to keep up with capacity.”

Since Sept. 23, Peachtree Immediate Care at Emory Point has also added additional diagnostic testing for students on weekdays. This service will remain available throughout the semester.

Masking compliance and operating status

Over the past month, Emory has taken steps to improve compliance with its indoor masking policy in particular buildings, including making announcements, closing facilities and increasing reminders on social media, according to St. Clair.

“What we’re seeing is our masking protocol compliance remains very strong across campus and across our populations,” St. Clair said. “However, we’re seeing, in some areas and some pockets, that’s not as strong. So, what we’ve done is we’ve taken proactive measures to make sure that we communicate effectively.”

On Sept. 3, certain facilities in the Woodruff Physical Education Center and Student Activity and Academic Center closed due to noncompliance with Emory’s indoor masking policy. These facilities, which included indoor basketball, tennis and racquetball courts, reopened Sept. 27, with the hope that “students will comply with Emory’s mask-wearing protocols,” according to Director of Athletics Keiko Price.

“Our goal is to keep these indoor spaces open,” Price wrote in an Oct. 5 email to the Wheel. “But that will only happen if all members of our community follow the University’s mask requirements.”

Emory has operated at a “modified yellow operating status” since Sept. 2, when St. Clair announced the change in an email to students. St. Clair said that the University’s ability to return to a green operating status depends not only on the current situation on campus and in the region, but also on what measures may help prevent transmission in future circumstances.

“We should anticipate being in that condition moving forward until the indicators change, or we position ourselves based on upcoming time periods where we feel comfortable and confident that we can move to a green operating status,” St. Clair said.

St. Clair and Rabinovitz emphasized that students need to continue complying with COVID-19 policies over the next several weeks as fall break passes and Halloween approaches.

“We don’t know what COVID has in store for us, but we know the risk factors that will increase transmission because we saw it happen during our surge just now,” Rabinovitz said. “We saw what happened during the last October-November-December time period and we don’t want to repeat history.”