COVID-19 at UVM: Off-campus cases rise sharply, UK variant detected

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Kate Vanni

A testing vial sits in a makeshift distribution pipe at UVM’s COVID-19 testing site.

UVM reported nearly 100 new COVID-19 cases in the last week, nearly 70 of which were off-campus, marking an all-time high in UVM’s weekly case-count since the start of the pandemic. 

Additionally, the VT Department of Health recently confirmed the presence of the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant within the student body, according to a March 22 email from Gary Derr, VP of Operations and Public Safety. 

“Recently, it was confirmed through the Vermont Department of Health that 4 of 5 random samples from UVM tested positive for the UK variant (B.1.1.7) of COVID-19,” he stated in the email. 

Originally seen in the UK, the presence of B.1.1.7 was first confirmed in Chittenden County on March 8, according to a VTDigger article

The University saw 69 new COVID-19 cases among off-campus students, 24 new cases among on-campus students and two new cases among staff members in the last week, according to the University’s weekly testing report

In the last three weeks, 98 off-campus students in total tested positive for the virus. 

The email stated that the recently imposed twice-weekly testing mandate for students will once again be extended through this upcoming week. 

This is the third time the University has decided to extend the twice-weekly testing mandate, despite a March 12 email from Derr stating that “beginning the week of March 22, we anticipate returning to testing every seven days.” 

The night of St. Patrick’s Day UVM received reports of multiple student gatherings, according to a March 19 email from Derr. Continuing twice-weekly testing would help to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 potentially caused by these gatherings, he stated.

“As you may recall, in the early part of this semester we saw a concerning growth in on-campus residential students testing positive,” Derr stated in that same email. “This week, we saw a dramatic decline.”  

If that trend were to continue through the end of the week, UVM at the time felt optimistic about reinstating the on-campus guest policy for this week, the March 19 email stated. 

The guest policy allowed one masked guest into residential rooms. The policy was only briefly in place during the fall semester. Now, with 24 new cases on-campus, there has been no further mention of reinstating the guest policy in Derr’s more recent email. 

The results from last week are not encouraging,” Derr stated in the March 22 email. “This is important information as the variant spreads more readily and symptoms appear sooner and can be more severe.” 

The presence of multiple variants has been discovered across the country, with 55,000 new COVID-19 cases reported daily nationwide, according to the email. 

Chittenden County reported nearly 500 new cases in the last 14 days and the state has seen more than 2,400 cases since the start of the month. 

“I know we are all frustrated and tired of the impact of COVID-19 on our lives. But it is vitally important to increase our diligence,” Derr stated. “We are encouraged by the plan to vaccinate all Vermonters, including UVM students, by July 1.” 

Students must continue to follow protocols that are already in place, Derr stated, such as wearing face coverings, maintaining 6-foot physical distancing and avoiding social gatherings.