Keene State College will continue campus-wide COVID-19 testing at least through October as school officials continue to monitor infection rates on campus and in surrounding communities.
“We will re-evaluate in mid-October to see if appropriate changes could be made for November,” Mary Beth “MB” Lufkin, the college’s vice president for enrollment and student engagement, said in a recent email. “We continue to be focused on trends.”
When students began returning to campus in late August, Keene State officials said the college would conduct weekly mass testing through September. Beyond that, school leaders said the frequency of this surveillance testing would depend on data such as coronavirus case rates at the college and throughout the region.
Keene State monitors “a slate of metrics daily,” Lufkin said, specifically new cases per 100,000 people over the past 14 days for Cheshire County, the number of active COVID-19 cases in Keene and the number of new cases per week among Keene State students and employees.
“These three metrics are the top three that determine whether or not we make adjustments,” Lufkin said. “We have also put more of an emphasis on our wastewater epidemiology project which detects COVID levels in the wastewater and has proven to be a useful tool over the past year.”
As of Monday, 44 students and two employees had tested positive for COVID-19 since students started returning to Keene in late August, according to Keene State’s online COVID-19 dashboard, which is updated each Monday. For the first time this school year, no students tested positive last week, while one employee did.
The new academic year began during the continued surge of COVID-19 cases nationally and locally, driven by the more contagious delta variant. Infection rates in Cheshire County remain significantly higher than this summer, and Cheshire Medical Center in Keene has seen an influx of COVID-19 patients in recent weeks. Like all of New Hampshire’s 10 counties, Cheshire is currently experiencing substantial community transmission, the highest of three levels, according to the state health department.
Keene State reported seven coronavirus cases during student arrival, and case rates climbed in each of the next three weeks, hitting a peak of 16 cases the week of Sept. 13 through 19. New infections have dropped off since then, with four the following week and one last week.
The college has roughly 3,100 students and 630 employees, and has conducted 21,245 coronavirus tests so far this academic year for a total positivity rate of 0.22 percent.
Anyone who tests positive for the novel coronavirus at Keene State is contacted by the school’s Rapid Response Team, which provides instructions for isolating. Vaccinated individuals identified as close contacts of people who test positive are not required to quarantine but do need to be tested for the coronavirus three to five days after exposure. Unvaccinated people identified as close contacts must quarantine for 10 days.
Due to a new state law, the college, along with the rest of New Hampshire’s public university system, is not requiring a COVID-19 vaccine this fall. But, Keene State is encouraging all students and staff to get the shot and consider sharing proof of vaccination with the school’s Wellness Center through a confidential online portal.
As of this week, 78 percent of faculty and staff and 65 percent of students have provided proof of vaccination, Lufkin said.
Moving forward, Keene State officials will continue to evaluate public health data daily, but Lufkin said conversations about potential changes to the college’s COVID-19 protocols likely won’t happen more frequently than every two weeks.
As of Monday, the college is operating under a mix of “orange and yellow” conditions, the middle two tiers of a four-tiered COVID-19 response plan. Measures that remain in place include a mask mandate indoors and for groups of more than 10 people outdoors; a cap on indoor gatherings at 67 percent of the venue’s capacity; and an outdoor event limit of 350 people.
“In addition to a mask requirement, social distancing, and limits on gatherings,” Lufkin said, “the College continues to take a layered approach to protect against this pandemic.”