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Friday, May 24, 2024

COVID-19 at William & Mary: More testing planned this week and a take from the university’s only virologist

Professor Carey Bagdassarian teaches a COLL 300 course in one of the new outdoor learning spaces created for the fall semester. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Jim Agnew, W&M News)
Professor Carey Bagdassarian teaches a COLL 300 course in one of the new outdoor learning spaces created for the fall semester. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Jim Agnew, W&M News)

Here’s a development: The College of William & Mary is testing all of its students for the coronavirus this week.

“As announced previously, all on-campus students are being tested again this week,” Erin Zagursky, spokeswoman for the university, wrote in an email on Wednesday. “Additionally, faculty and staff have access to free at-will testing, and are still being sampled as part of prevalence testing.

As of Tuesday, W&M has 10 positive active cases among students on-campus and fewer than 10 active cases among employees on campus.

Since August, there have been 44 positive cases at W&M among students with 20 students testing positive before the start of the fall semester.

There have been fewer than 10 positive cases among employees since August and fewer than 10 employees had tested positive before arriving on campus.

The university defines on-campus cases as “any student or employee with a local address within a 30-mile drive of the campus is considered an on-campus community member.”

Students and faculty who are talking classes or working remotely count as on-campus cases, too.

So why doesn’t William & Mary separate on-campus cases from cases that happen off-campus?

“’On-campus’ and ‘off-campus’ designations are fluid, as students who live in off-campus housing come on campus for services (examples include visiting campus for the library or wellness visits),” Zagursky wrote. “The distinctions become even more dynamic when you think of the testing environment, e.g., when a student who lives in a campus residence hall goes off campus for a COVID-19 test.”

“Ultimately, W&M decided the most useful reporting measure of COVID-19 on campus would include all of the students we can reasonably expect to engage physically with the campus, interacting in physical space with other students, faculty and staff.”

It’s unclear how many positive cases at the university would warrant a shutdown of in-person instruction.

So what does W&M’s only virologist think of the COVID-19 Dashboard and the positive cases at the university?

“Well I feel like very few academic institutions really have the budget to take the approach that’s needed and that would be a pretty aggressive testing and tracing program,” said Kurt Williamson, virologist and associate professor of Biology at W&M. “With that approach you are on top of asymptomatic carriers.”

He said the problem is people “who feel fine” but actually have the virus and are spreading it.

Another issue is the cost of doing such programs.

“It’s going to make it difficult to stay on top of it,” he added.

Williamson actually wrote the university administration prior to the start of the fall semester, expressing concern about the decision to reopen campus.

RELATED STORY: William & Mary’s only virologist has serious concerns about the college’s reopening plans amid the coronavirus

Despite his earlier reservations, Williamson said he has not seen the rapid numbers at W&M compared to other parts of the country and credited the community’s response.

“I have been impressed, I did not expect us to make it this far,” he said of the positive cases and the community’s response. “I think that is the main reason we have gotten as far as we have.”

“It’s hard to maintain this level of vigilance and to some degree this level of anxiety about things, but we got to keep it up.”

As for the athletics department experiencing positive cases, Williamson said “any of kind of tight-knit group like that” can provide “social pressure” and “presents challenges for social distancing.”

“So now that we know there has been at least 10 cases within in athletics, the case now becomes, what other cases are out there we don’t’ know about?” he said, adding surveillance testing is the best thing they can do.

But Williamson is not working with W&M on their response to COVID-19 cases on campus. In fact, he is not “involved in any way.”

“I think a large part of that is William & Mary partnered with UVA Health,” he said, adding their health experts have more experience in health care than he does.

When asked if the administration responded to his letter or asked him for advice on the situation, Williamson said W&M President Katherine Rowe sent him an email a few days after he sent the letter.

He said she thanked him for his input and said he could provide more information through a portal ––– the “same generic portal given to the community.”

“Essentially what’s done is done, my main concerns were how were we going to bring students back safely,” he said.

Williamson added he also voiced his concerns and disappointment about the testing issue with Kallaco earlier in the semester.

RELATED STORY: FDA: W&M COVID-19 testing provider has no emergency use authorization

From what he understands “from the outside” is that the university is doing antigen testing, rapid testing through nasal swabs administered by technicians with results in 20 minutes and PCR-based testing which takes longer to process the assay.

So does he think the university should shut down campus?

“Certainly I’m not in the position to make that decision,” he said.

To the best of his knowledge, what he knows is there was a series of positive tests in the athletics department.

“So given those numbers, given that I don’t know anything more, that doesn’t seem like a huge problem, especially if we can deal with it through isolation and quarantine,” he said.

He noted the test results of all the students would be a better indicator.

“It’s concerning we are seeing one jump but we are going to wait and see how big does that number get with this next round of testing,” Williamson said.

Another consideration, he said, is if the university has the capacity to isolate the new cases and just how many cases that would be. He said, however, he is not a “medical professional.”

As for how the university defines the number of positive cases on campus, Williamson said he thinks it’s fair and the school is being “up front” on how they categorize cases.

He noted two things to keep in mind about the dashboard is “what stratification of the date makes the most sense” and “how difficult is it to built it into the dashboard.”

“I think that’s fair, they have a definition which they have given what defines the campus community and they define the numbers for that,” he said. “I think its going to paint a pretty reasonable picture”

Williamson commended everyone for their role so far but urged people to continue to wear masks, practice social distancing and to “keep it up.”

As it gets colder, people are going to be outside a little less and these become factors into the virus possibly spiking again.

“It’s shown masks work, mask reduce the spread,” he said. “So keep practicing good hand hygiene “

While masks and social distancing are helpful, they are not perfect on their own, he added.

“But if you put them together, it really provides more protection than those things alone,” he said. “Another thing too is limiting the time or interactions…that’s going to help, too.”

Williamson currently teaches his classes remotely with his lab course marked as optional — where students can come in one at a time to meet with him.

He plans to have remote classes in the spring semester and “if we are lucky” the vaccine will start to be available by May.

“As much as it makes logistically sense, I feel like we should,” he said. “Nothing has changed, maybe a vaccine will come up but it has to be distributed.”

Irene Ferrainolo, population health manager and spokeswoman for the Peninsula Health District, wrote in an email W&M “consulted” with the district’s epidemiologists before the fall semester started and “continue to do so as needed.”

“Our response team and contact tracers work with the student health team as well,” she added.

As of Wednesday, there 168,772 cases, 12,010 hospitalizations and 3,515 deaths in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Health’s website.

Here are the recent cases, hospitalization and deaths in the Peninsula Health District:

The latest coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the Historic Triangle from the Virginia Department of Health. (WYDaily/ Julia Marsigliano)
The latest coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the Historic Triangle from the Virginia Department of Health. (WYDaily/ Julia Marsigliano)


Julia Marsigliano
Julia Marsigliano
Julia Marsigliano is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She covers everything on the Peninsula from local government and law enforcement agencies to family-run businesses and weather updates. Before WYDaily, she covered Hampton and Newport News for WYDaily’s sister publication, HNNDaily before both publications merged in December 2018. Julia was born in Tokyo, Japan and moved to Long Island, New York in 2001. A true New Yorker, she loves pizza, bagels and good Chinese food. Send comments, tips and other tidbits to You can follow her on Twitter at @jmarsigliano

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