By Connor Starr – Staff Writer
Ashley DeLeon – Executive Editor – contributed to the reporting of this story
St. Michael’s College reported a spike of 87 positive COVID-19 cases within the past week, which is the highest uptick the institution experienced since last spring. President Lorraine Sterritt informed the College of the outbreak in a series of emails from Nov. 3-9 and alleged that Halloween weekend activities served as probable cause.
“We were doing really well as a community up to the point where there were numerous Halloween parties where students were unmasked and in close contact,” Sterritt wrote in a campus-wide email on Nov. 7. “We are deeply saddened that the investigation of the genesis of this increase in positive cases points to Halloween parties as being a significant part of the problem.”
In-person classes were suspended last Friday resulting from the outbreak and resumed on Monday at instructor discretion. Sterritt also announced that in-person student social gatherings have been suspended, and that party registration would be reevaluated after Thanksgiving break.
“I can see and hear the impact that this difficult week has had on our community. I’m feeling grateful to our students, faculty, and staff for responding quickly and adjusting, and for adhering to COVID policies. I recognize the sacrifices and stresses involved, and I feel for everyone as we navigate our way through this wretched pandemic. I want our students to have fun, and I want them to be safe. We are a strong community. We will pull through this, and we look forward to brighter days ahead,” Sterritt said in an email to the Defender.
Following the outbreak, Sterritt announced that there would be an asymptomatic testing center in response to the rise in cases. Dawn Ellinwood, vice president for student affairs, informed the College that the center would be located in Eddie’s Lounge.
The outbreak made national headlines and was reported by The New York Times on Tuesday. The story was temporarily featured on the landing page of their web site and was later migrated to the COVID-19 updates section.
On Wednesday, the Student Government Association executive board responded to the email from Nov. 7 with a statement on behalf of students and their concerns.
“First and foremost, masking at social gatherings in a student’s living space has been communicated to students as only being needed at their discretion. This guidance was given at a residence hall meeting for townhouses, apartments, and suites by the Director of Residence Life. The College now asserting the guideline has always been proper masking indoors is still required, even in social gatherings with people you know presents a contradiction of what students were told earlier in the year. It has created a sense of frustration, as students who have had small, safe social gatherings within the guidance they were given are now being seen as reckless and unsafe. Further, as students’ homes are considered a private space on campus, this guideline may ultimately prove to be unenforceable without further restricting a student’s ability to live comfortably on this campus,” the board wrote.
Marketing and Communications Director Alex Bertoni said he felt sad and proud in an email to the Defender. “I am sad because despite so many students doing the right thing, we have this situation. I feel proud because of the students, faculty, and staff that have come together to help out,” he said.
Political Science and International Relations Professor Mike Bosia expressed his perspective as to how state policies may have played a role in this outbreak.
“We are in this position because the governor has been unable to explain why Vermont is experiencing a surge in COVID infections, hospitalizations, and deaths since August – some of the highest numbers since March 2020… St. Mike’s is part of the larger community, and when public health authorities allow you to go to bars and clubs unvaccinated and without a mask, we can predict that there will be an outbreak,” he said.
Bosia also believes that the governor is “relying on our impatience instead of our best selves.”
Robert McCabe ’23, explained his frustration about the suspension of social gatherings. “One of the main things students have to look away to is seeing our friends and going to social gatherings, and this gives us a way to get away from the stresses of COVID and school. COVID fatigue is adding up, and we need a way to escape.”
Gabby Doe ’23 believes that engaging in off campus activities could have contributed to the outbreak. “It seemed like we were doing a pretty good job at containing them, but the spike from Halloween weekend made sense because a lot of people were going to other schools or bars to party. And that’s just introducing COVID from somewhere else into our environment. There’s nothing they could do to prevent that… They can’t force us to stay on campus,” she said.
Sterritt expressed her desire for students to enjoy the college experience, though the spike has heightened a need for an increase in precautionary measures.
“I know you want to enjoy your St. Michael’s experience to the fullest, but this spike in cases, the onset of winter, and the power of this virus call for even more thoughtful consideration and personal responsibility,” Sterritt said in an email. She called upon students to join a collective effort to “do well and do good.”
Sterritt also added that no student experienced symptoms that required hospitalization.
On Nov. 5, Sterritt informed the College community about 54 reported cases and that the Executive Policy Group would meet to assess the status of campus.
“I can’t emphasize enough the crucial importance of abiding by the College’s COVID policies. There are vulnerable people on campus and vulnerable family members in the homes of faculty and staff. It is imperative that everyone make wise choices, choices that take into account the wellbeing of every member of our community,” she wrote in an email on Nov. 5.
Faith Morgan ’23 said she felt confused and scared about how the remainder of the semester would pan out after seeing the first two emails.
“I remember seeing the first email about the 10 cases, and I was a little anxious about that, but then I was also kind of okay, because 10 is still pretty low, given that we’re all vaccinated,” she said.
“Then we got the email about 31 more cases. With this one, I felt a lot more anxious and I felt like my mind was all over the place. I would have moments where I’d be super anxious, but then I’d tell myself well we’re doing what we can. This spike is kind of inevitable, it was going to happen at some point.”
COVID-19 cases have increased in Vermont since this summer. The Vermont Department of Health reported that the highest number of daily cases throughout most of the summer was 59, until a recent spike in August led to over 100 reported cases per day.
Months later, the state is experiencing a spike as daily cases reach the highest they have ever been at 591 cases yesterday.
Gov. Scott said in a press conference on Nov. 4 that this pandemic is “driven by the unvaccinated.”
Sterritt announced last week that boosters would be required for vaccinated students, faculty and staff.
“The vaccine is an incredibly effective tool – the most effective tool – we have. It’s greatest strength is in reducing severe illness requiring hospitalizations and reducing deaths,” said Trish Siplon, public health director and political science professor.
Bertoni, who also serves as a member of the Executive Policy Group, explained that the deadline to receive boosters is undecided.
“The booster shot is required for students as they become eligible, but a deadline has not yet been established because it varies from student to student,” Bertoni said. “We will provide ample time for students to get their boosters. We just ask that students schedule their booster as they become eligible, which is six months after receiving their second Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or two months after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.”
Vermonters who expect to receive a COVID-19 booster can select a different vaccine brand than their initial shot.
The FDA and CDC announced the approval of vaccines to children ages 5-11 on Oct. 29.
“Thankfully, 44,000 more Vermonters [children ages 5-11] just became eligible for vaccination. Today’s data underscores the urgency for parents and caregivers to sign their children up to be vaccinated if they are eligible. Vaccines are safe, effective and free. Not only will they limit spread of the virus, but also limit disruptions, like the need to quarantine after exposure, which leads to kids missing school and other activities that help their social and emotional wellbeing,” Scott said in his Nov. 4 press conference.
As some community members live with unvaccinated children, this can mitigate potential fears of bringing the virus home.
In regards to the safety of the College community, Sterritt added that “With regard to the current increase in cases, it is absolutely imperative that everyone follow the College’s COVID policies. Everyone must remember that there are vulnerable people on campus and that there are faculty and staff who have unvaccinated children and other vulnerable people at home.”
Though the St. Michael’s community has been rattled by the outbreak, Bertoni is hopeful that our community will overcome this.
To register for a booster or to check for eligibility, visit the Vermont Department of Health website.
Asymptomatic faculty, staff and students can schedule a COVID-19 test through the Sign-Up Genius linked in a Nov. 9 email from the Office of Student Life.
Symptomatic students can call or visit the Bergeron Wellness Center to receive a test.