Living and Learning in the Age of COVID

Living and Learning in the Age of COVID
Craig Gemmell

The end of last week was certainly a blur given that a member of our community manifested symptoms of COVID and we set about following the isolation, contact tracing, containment, and communications protocols we have developed over the past months. Just yesterday we took a look at how we responded and what we learned in order to prepare should we encounter a similar situation in the future. 

What transpired: Almost immediately upon receiving the positive antigen test (also known as a rapid test) result, we assembled our Reopen Campus Strategy Team and called the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. We rapidly assigned roles and tasks and began working our way through the necessary steps:

  • Immediate response: quarantine and contact tracing
  • Containment: closure of access to town, certain classrooms and campus spaces, cancellation of certain programs for the day
  • Communication: timely information to students, parents, faculty, staff, and others
  • Mitigation: cleaning of spaces, temporary adjustments to campus operations 
  • Support: for those in quarantine and their loved ones, and for the community at large as individuals processed their own anxieties in the face of a situation that is new for all of us.

I am incredibly proud of the way the Brewster team responded, with necessary speed, strong communication, and care for our students and community driving every decision. The response team has fully debriefed the events of the week, and we recognized a few key takeaways. 

What we learned: 

The six foot rule: In terms of contact tracing, we’ve developed an even greater appreciation for just how important the six foot rule is. According to the N.H. Bureau of Infectious Disease Control, close contact is defined as being within 6 feet for a total of 10 cumulative minutes or more, beginning 48 hours prior to illness onset or date of specimen collection associated with the positive COVID-19 test, whichever is earlier. 

There are a couple key components of that definition. First, the definition does not reference masks. While masks are incredibly important in reducing the spread of the virus, they are not a factor in defining close contacts as defined by public health guidelines. Second, the definition calls for 10 cumulative minutes or more (not consecutive), so according to Health and Human Services, this may mean several different contacts of two minutes or five minutes in the course of the 48-hour period that add up to 10 minutes total. 

We are continuing to work with our faculty, staff, and students to ensure that individuals are making every effort to adhere to the six foot rule to the fullest extent possible. 

Testing: All members of our nursing staff received certification as contact tracers over the summer. Our team quickly conducted interviews in order to determine any close contacts. Any close contacts exhibiting symptoms consistent with COVID-19 were given an antigen test, also known as a rapid test. All were negative for the virus. Antigen tests should not be used with asymptomatic people, so other close contacts were tested using the PCR test, which typically requires a turnaround time of several days. We also made the decision to do a PCR test with the original community member who tested positive on the antigen test.

Our decisions are guided by state policies: By Saturday morning, we were thrilled to receive the news that all PCR tests results were negative, including the PCR test we did on the original positive antigen case. We immediately shared the results with DHHS in hopes that the negative PCR results would negate the positive antigen test. DHHS explained the prescribed decision matrix they must follow. If there is a positive antigen test, followed by a negative PCR test, they review the case for several factors including whether or not there were symptoms at the time of the positive test, whether there were any known exposures to a known positive case, or whether there are other risk factors. In this case, DHHS determined that it would be treated as a positive case of COVID-19. Therefore, those close contacts in quarantine must complete 14-days from the point of exposure, as symptoms of the virus can manifest at any point during that quarantine period.

This news was a cause for disappointment for many, our response team included. But we fully support the efforts of DHHS to keep our community safe in a time when the science around the virus and the tests themselves is still so new, and in fact, updating on a daily basis.

Brewster’s approach will get us through this if all continue to work together: I cannot stress enough the importance that all members of our community continue to adhere to the Brewster Covenant. No one wants to be in quarantine, or worse, become ill. It is our responsibility to care for ourselves and one another during unprecedented times. We will continue to adjust our policies and procedures as we live and learn through these challenging times, while always committed to providing a full and joy-filled experience for all. Thank you for your partnership.


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