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Monitoring, responding to COVID-19 changes: Ashish Jha and Russell Carey discuss students’ return to Brown

Carey says University is monitoring data daily, no ‘hard and fast threshold’ for reversing current measures and decisions

By , and
University News Editors and Science and Research Editor
Sunday, September 13, 2020

Part 2 in a 2-part series “Welcoming Students Back to Brown: A Conversation with Dr. Jha and VP Carey. Part 1 can be found here

Although the University has decided to welcome more students back to College Hill and classrooms amid the coronavirus pandemic, it is continuing to monitor the situation and willing to make changes to its approach.

Administrators are watching the data carefully everyday, according to Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91. But “there’s not a hard and fast threshold,” that would prompt the University to reverse its current measures, he said. 

Such decisions would be informed by a “holistic review” that considered the numbers in context.

In a Sept. 11 conversation with The Herald, following the University’s decision to welcome more students on campus and hosting some in-person instruction, Vice President Carey and Dean of the School of Public Health Ashish Jha discussed how the University will monitor the public health crisis and take up measures to adapt to it. 

Remaining undergraduate students who have not yet returned to campus will move back to College Hill on the weekend of Sept. 19, and some small, partially in-person classes will begin Oct. 5. When students arrive they are subject to Quiet Period restriction on their activities for their first two weeks in Providence and are mandated to be tested twice a week throughout the semester.

“There’s a very good chance we’ve got the best possible plan,” Jha said. But he acknowledged the importance of adapting guidelines to the trends: “As the world changes, you want decisions to change.”

While Jha is not one of the administrators responsible for decisions regarding University reopening, he is a nationally recognized public health expert and scholar.

In that vein, on campus, an increase in COVID-19 cases could result in increased testing, an extension of Quiet Period guidelines or a combination. 

If COVID-19 cases spiked in a specific dorm, the University would consider testing all students in that residence in response. “That’s proactive, it’s aggressive, it’s always trying to be one step ahead of the virus,” Jha said.

Alongside monitoring COVID-19 data and test results, testing methods themselves could evolve as the University follows its phased approach into the fall and through its three-semester academic year.

Jha said that the University is actively considering means of enhancing testing efforts.

“We’re certainly open to looking at new opportunities,” including wastewater testing, but “we won’t start something unless we know we can sustain it at the level of testing that we’re doing on a weekly basis” and unless it is accurate, Carey said.

Students, faculty and staff are presently receiving a “reliable” and “high quality” anterior nasal swab test at least weekly, but there is a possibility that the University will transition to a different testing method in the future depending on medical experts’ and scientific findings and recommendations, Jha said. 

“I would not be surprised if we see other testing modalities come online for our communities,” Jha said, but “we want to make sure the science is good.”

One such test is next-generation genome sequencing, also known as NGS. Jha has been in contact with Ginkgo Bioworks, a company working on NGS testing. This test has not yet received Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. If it does, the test would not only identify the presence of the virus but also provide detailed information about its genetic material that can be used for better study of the virus, according to the Ginkgo Bioworks website

Any changes to testing protocols would be reported to the University community, Carey said.

Ensuring the safety of the University community during the pandemic “is a constant balancing act,” Carey said. Seeing Brown’s staff “come together to work through that, and the willingness of people to collaborate and go above and beyond … it’s been continually inspiring,” he added. 

University employees “have families; many of them have parents, they’re caring for young children or health circumstances themselves,” Carey said. So, the fact that they have carried on their work, and in many cases taken on new responsibilities “as well as they have, and with as good a spirit as (they) have is really a testament to their commitment to Brown,” he added.

Overall, Carey and Jha emphasized that Brown’s planning will continue to evolve as circumstances change and advancements are made. The University’s current plan may be imperfect, and “if there’s something we’re missing that we haven’t thought about … tell us and we’ll change it,” Jha said.

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