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VP Carey: Low weekly number of COVID-19 cases continues but public health, safety practices remain important

Brown updates mask-wearing policy to reflect CDC guidelines, plans mask distribution

The University saw seven community members test positive for COVID-19 in the asymptomatic testing program between Feb. 18 and 20, according to the Healthy Brown COVID-19 Dashboard. The seven cases follow a week when zero students tested positive, from Feb. 11 to 17. 

“Since the beginning of the term, we’ve seen a steady decline week over week in terms of the absolute number of positives,” said Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91 MA’06. The week of Feb. 11 to 17 saw the lowest number of cases since September, according to the dashboard. 

“We should feel good about it and (take) a lot of pride in what the Brown community is doing, but also not let up in the sort of discipline that everyone has had, because that's what reduces the spread of this disease,” Carey said.

Providence College “experienced a spike in COVID-19 cases this week with more than 90 students testing positive in a short three-day period and many additional students in quarantine as close contacts,” according to an email sent by the University to Brown’s first-year class on Feb. 13. 

Like the University, Providence College partners with the Broad Institute to run a “robust testing program” and works closely with the R.I. Department of Health, Carey said. 

It is a “helpful reminder” that the low number of COVID-19 cases that the University has experienced recently “can change,” Carey said. But there are “no concerns about any impact on Brown’s cases” from the increased cases at Providence College, Carey said. 

“All of the institutions in Rhode Island … have been working really closely, (transparently) and collaboratively with each other,” Carey said. There is frequent communication between the health services directors and chief student affairs officers across colleges, he added. 

Providence College, which Carey has been in communication with in the past week, has “taken a number of steps to address the increases in positivity,” he said. 

The University has also sent out new guidance around mask-wearing based on an update on effective mask use from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The University recommends wearing a single high-quality mask or two masks, such as a cotton mask over a surgical mask, when indoors for a sustained period of time around other people and when social distancing is not possible, according to a community-wide email sent on Feb. 15. 

The University has largely seen adherence to mask-wearing: “We’re really pleased with how people have taken on mask-wearing, not just at Brown, but I think, particularly in our city and in our state, it’s become the norm,” Carey said. 

Still, effective mask-wearing can be “really confusing” given the variety of masks available on the market, Carey added. Some masks may be unreliable or inappropriate depending on the medical or non-medical environment that a person works in. The CDC guidance “was really aimed at underscoring the importance of fit and giving people clear information about how to make what is available to them fit well,” he said.

“Concerns about variants (of the COVID-19 virus) are also on our minds,” Carey said, which was another motivation for the University to emphasize wearing well-fitted masks as protection.

The University is currently working “as quickly as we can” to procure additional masks, Carey added. The first wave of distributions will most likely be surgical masks, which will be distributed at the University’s COVID-19 testing sites.

While COVID-19 vaccinations are not yet widely available to students, scheduling for COVID-19 vaccinations opens Monday to any R.I. resident ages 65 years and older, according to a press release by the R.I. government. The state’s move to a new phase in vaccine distribution is “really a positive step forward” in the context of slow distribution nationwide, Carey said. The University has notified faculty and staff who have become eligible in the new age group and hopes that “people will continue to take advantage of (vaccination) when it becomes available to them,” he said.

Making a vaccination appointment is “still challenging” in Rhode Island, The Herald previously reported, though Carey predicts that “making the appointments (is) going to get easier and easier as the volume of supply increases, hopefully, in the coming weeks.”

Despite the pandemic’s persistence, first-years received the opportunity to walk through the Van Wickle Gates during the long weekend on Feb. 16 in honor of the University’s tradition for Opening Convocation, usually held at the start of each fall semester, The Herald previously reported. The University waited to host the event until after the transition to Campus Activity Level 2 to “feel comfortable organizing, hosting and running an event of this type,” Carey said. 

Students were assigned different time slots based on their residential area to minimize interaction between groups, and available staff helped enforce social distancing, he said. 

“Having an opportunity to walk through the gates is an essential part of being a Brown student, … and we’re really glad that it happened and that students responded to it so enthusiastically and safely,” Carey said. 

Similar events are in the works for first-year medical and graduate students.

“We want to make sure that all (new student) populations have that opportunity as best we can,” Carey said.


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