First member of College community tests positive for COVID-19

Jeongyoon Han and Rebecca Tauber

The College confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in the Williams community yesterday morning. 

The student, who at the time of publication remains asymptomatic according to the College, had been studying abroad in Barcelona, Spain, but returned to campus last Saturday to pick up their car and drive it home the next day. While on campus, the student interacted with other members of the College community, including at Sensation Hoxsey, an annual daytime street party that occurred on Saturday. They then left Massachusetts on Sunday.

Despite their lack of symptoms, the student was advised by their physician to take the test because of their autoimmune disease. Since returning home, the student has been in self-imposed isolation for about a week and has notified those that they had been in close contact with while on campus. 

In an email to the College community Friday afternoon, signed by Director of Medical Services Deb Flynn, Vice President for Campus Life Steve Klass and Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom, the College noted that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a person’s risk of transmission is lower when asymptomatic.

However, Jim Reische, the College’s chief communications officer, sent a follow up email to the College community today apologizing for mischaracterizing the risk of transmission of those who are asymptomatic. 

“While paraphrasing the CDC’s position on this question, I wrote that ‘CDC guidelines regard the risk of contagion as very low when an individual is asymptomatic,’” Reische said. “This is incorrect, and I apologize for my mistake.”

Rather, the CDC website writes, “People are thought to be most contagious when they are most symptomatic (the sickest)… Some spread might be possible before people show symptoms; there have been reports of this occurring with this new coronavirus, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times cited a report based on data in China that suggests that those with undetected infections often do infect others, a statistic referenced in the College’s second email. “On average these people are about half as infectious as confirmed ones, but they are responsible for transmitting the virus in nearly 80 percent of new cases,” the Times wrote. 

The original email stated that public health officials told Flynn that exposure to someone who is positive yet asymptomatic does not qualify for testing in the region, which remains the case. “Deb and many of us would like to see those criteria expanded, and we’ll advocate for changes whenever we get the opportunity,” Reische added in the followup email. “We’ll inform you if the criteria evolve.”

The case comes as other college communities across the country receive news of confirmed COVID-19 cases, including at Dartmouth, Bates and Colby. “We knew we would get one … at some point,” Reische said in an interview with the Record.

The College is working with the student to get a list of people they were in contact with to inform them of the positive test result, and will ask those individuals to monitor their health and maintain social distancing in the upcoming days and weeks. 

In light of the case, Klass stressed the importance of maintaining social distancing, and, for those still on campus, not leaving unless necessary. 

“We hope that seeing the kinds of damage you can do through something like what just happened will prevent people from taking those risks for themselves and especially for others on campus,” Klass said. “We’re hoping that people will reach out if they believe that they have to leave campus and travel any distance for any length of time.”

Even before today’s news about the confirmed case, the College had relocated students still living on campus to dorm rooms where they have their own personal bathrooms. Those students have now also received four disposable thermometers and are encouraged to contact the Health Center by phone if they have a fever or cough. The College has instructed students living off-campus to contact their own healthcare providers if they begin to feel sick. 

This article was updated at 12:50 p.m. on Mar. 21 to include information about the College’s email correction.