Colleges adapt to rising coronavirus cases

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The University released data from its Early Alert Service on Monday, revealing that 197 students tested positive for Covid-19 in the week beginning October 10th. This was an increase of 61 cases on the previous week, and some colleges – and their annexes – have been impacted more heavily than others.

While University College imposed a lockdown on the entirety of its second year annexe last Friday, and St John’s now has over 150 students in self-isolation, Magdalen College saw its first confirmed coronavirus cases since freshers’ week this Wednesday, with a small number of undergraduate members testing positive. 

With most colleges seeing a number of positive tests in 0th week, Magdalen had remained largely unaffected – in an email sent on Monday, students were told that there were ‘no positive cases in College, and a very small number of students self-isolating as a close contact.’ The college has maintained relatively relaxed rules regarding guests from outside of college and mixing of household bubbles, with undergraduates allowed one guest in their room at a time, though not in communal spaces shared by other household members.

It is understood that the college has seen relatively little large-scale flouting of coronavirus regulations, with one incident in 0th week leading to guest privileges being revoked from freshers. Monday’s email also congratulated students on the fact that there had been ‘virtually no [disciplinary] incidents involving undergraduate freshers in the last ten days’, announcing that all fines and guest restrictions would be suspended ‘as a consequence of the more or less model behaviour of the first-year cohort’.

Some students at Magdalen have suggested that the college’s leniency around guests has made those living on site more amenable to the other social restrictions that have been set. Ellie Redpath, Magdalen JCR’s Welfare Executive, said:

“I think the guest policy has meant people are actually abiding by the rules – we aren’t so frustrated that people are becoming sceptical and having big parties and flouting the rules in extreme ways, instead I think there is a feeling of mutual respect between disciplinary staff and students.”

“I think we have struck a good balance – it’s horrible to imagine living in a college where you can’t even have one friend in your room from outside your household, especially as many won’t automatically be living with their friends, so this shows that they are thinking about us and what we need but also making sure to do so in a safe way that abides by government rules.”

Other colleges have now made adjustments to their restrictions to reflect the need for students – especially first-years – to be able to socialise indoors. Jesus College recently announced that it would increase household sizes for freshers, so that first year students would not have to live in single-person or very small bubbles. The College’s proposal would see many households merged to include eight people rather than four, with students able to opt out of household mergers if they prefer.

For now, it seems Magdalen will not tighten its social restrictions unless cases at the college rise significantly. St John’s college, which previously allowed guests in communal spaces like kitchens, has now prohibited visitors except on ‘urgent business’, and students at Exeter were warned yesterday that ‘it may become necessary, in the course of the next week, to restrict or close communal areas’ after 16 students tested positive. 

However, the emergence of cases at Magdalen has alerted students to the risks posed by false negative tests. Of the four positive cases identified this week, two students received a negative result in the first instance, and were only confirmed to have the virus after undergoing a second test.

University officials suggested in a Q&A session on Thursday that false negatives occur because students have had trouble with administering their own coronavirus tests, as the process can be difficult and uncomfortable. Although staff are on hand to help with the process at testing centres, students have to self-swab.

Tests can sometimes come back with a ‘false negative’ outcome if students book in too early after coming into close contact with someone confirmed to have the virus. Professor Chris Conlon, who currently chairs the University’s Health Medical Advisory Group, suggested in Thursday’s Q&A session that the chance of false negatives is highest within the first four or five days from contact, before carriers start shedding the virus.

In the same Q&A, officials also said that it was too early to tell whether more relaxed rules at Magdalen or other colleges have at all contributed to lower or higher numbers of cases. When asked why they thought Magdalen had seen so few cases before this week, one anonymous member of the college suggested that mild covid symptoms are sometimes mistaken for freshers’ flu, saying: 

“I think the numbers have probably been lower than they actually are. A lot of people will have a cough or not feel very well and dismiss it for freshers’ flu, or they’ll be hesitant to test and possibly make their friends have to isolate.”

The University has recently released updated guidance on when students should test and self-isolate, with the advice on its website reading:

‘If you are a household member or a recent close contact  of someone who has tested positive, you can only get a test if you have one of the main COVID-19 symptoms. This applies to both the NHS and the University’s own testing service.

A negative test does not release you early from the mandatory 14-day self-isolation period because of the ongoing risk that you are incubating the virus. This is consistent with Government guidance for the wider population.’

Students have also been advised to let their close contacts know themselves if they test positive or develop symptoms, with some individuals only being told by NHS Track and Trace to self-isolate ten days or more after contact. A number of colleges have attempted to communicate with the close contacts of students who test positive, asking them to quarantine for 14 days. Professor Conlon also asserted on Thursday the need for students to be proactive in self-isolating after close contact instead of waiting to be told to self-isolate by the Government.

Magdalen College has been contacted for comment.