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Penn medicine experts are concerned with the University’s COVID-19 positivity rate a month following move-in. Credit: Kylie Cooper

Just one month after arriving on campus, some students and Penn Medicine experts are concerned with the University's recent COVID-19 positivity rates and are unsure how effectively Penn's administration will respond. 

Following a spike in cases in late January, Penn threatened to move to Alert Level Three: Safer at Home on Feb. 5 if trends did not reverse. While the trends have since subdued, students worry that a spike may reoccur in the near future — particularly if the University does not enforce its COVID-19 safety guidelines in a stronger manner.

Students want clearer consequences for breaking the Student Campus Compact

College sophomore Kevin Rodriguez said that he liked the biweekly testing and general COVID-19 safety guidelines that Penn shared in emails prior to the beginning of the semester, but he did not see a lot of clear consequences for Student Campus Compact violations after moving to campus.

Since Penn reversed its decision to open campus for the fall 2020 semester, College first year Hertha Torre said that she expected the University to have a clear plan of action with outlined consequences for violations of COVID-19 guidelines by now. Torre added that she thought Penn would put more pressure on students to follow the Student Campus Compact.

Some students hoped Penn would positively surprise them, but thought that a rise in the on-campus COVID-19 positivity rate was inevitable with students coming back to Philadelphia. 

Nursing senior Shannon Peters said that with so many students returning to campus — many of them being first years who are eager to socialize with their peers — a spike seemed “to be expected.”

Peters believes Penn's plan to invite all students back to campus revolved around a belief that students would not contract the virus, rather than around creating a proactive plan that would limit cases and take care of infected students.  

“We really should have been preparing for the worst-case scenario, rather than, ‘Oh, we're going to give you a slap on the wrist, like if things get bad,’" Peters said. "It seems to me that we don't really have a great contingency plan.” 

Disappointment with the lack of enforcement of University COVID-19 policies 

Students agreed that, while Penn had good intentions with the Quiet Period, which allowed Penn students living on campus to only "leave their campus residence for limited, essential movement" during January, the University was not able to enforce it effectively.  

From the time classes started through the end of the Quiet Period, the total positivity rate on campus only increased.

College first year Emiliano Castillo said that students reacted differently to the Quiet Period. 

Some students took Quiet Period protocols very seriously and did not leave their dorms at all, he said, while other students “crossed state lines to attend big events.”

Castillo cited Greek life throwing parties and first-year students sneaking into other dorms to socialize as reoccurring issues Penn has failed to address.

While Torre found the increase in February's COVID-19 trends to be disappointing, she was not surprised, adding that her time on campus this semester has shown her that some people do not follow the rules because “they can afford to get the virus” and selfishly disregard any possible long-term health side effects. 

“It's very discouraging to see that these are the people that we are going to be sharing classes with for the next four years,” Torre said. “People should really be taking things seriously because they aren’t right now.”

College first year Steicy De Paiva said she was disappointed in the actions of other students and the COVID-19 positivity rate because of the impact this might have on the surrounding community. She said that, while Penn students might be fine with contracting the virus, people living in the local community may not be as fortunate.

“We are not in a bubble. We are at Penn,” De Paiva said. “Our actions have direct consequences.”

Engineering sophomore Akshitha Vijay added that both Penn students and the University itself need to be aware of their impact and take more action in curbing the spread of COVID-19 on campus in efforts to protect the surrounding communities. 

While she commends the University's testing and quarantine precautions, she said the University needs to be more intentional with their actions going forward if Penn does transition into Alert Level Three.

“From my understanding, Level Three resembles the Quiet Period a lot,” Vijay said. “If there is going to be the same level of enforcement during the real Quiet Period, I don't think it's going to get better.” 

Penn had too much trust in the student body, according to College first year Kaan Oral, who also believes the University should have put more means of enforcing COVID-19 guidelines in place. 

“When [students] finally got to campus and had that little taste of freedom, it was inevitable that it would be somewhat abused,” he said.

Learning to balance social interaction while following public health guidelines

College first year Chapin Lenthall-Cleary stressed how important social interaction is for students right now. While he thinks that large parties are irresponsible, he sympathizes with students who are “taking reasonable efforts to be safe while interacting with people,” even if they might not be completely following the rules.

Judith O’Donnell, director of the Department of Infection Prevention and Control and section chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, however, stressed that students must continue to wear masks in public and practice social distancing, even though she understands they wish to socialize now that they’re back on campus. 

Due to the nature of parties, during which students are likely to eat, drink, and thus be unmasked, she said they are among the highest-risk activities for COVID-19 transmission on campus. 

She said that while a slight rise in positivity rates is to be expected — as campus is now fully populated and everyone has been released from their initial quarantines — she finds the recent increase in positive tests to be worrisome because it is happening at the same time that the Philadelphia County and West Philadelphia positivity rates are on the decline.  

“Everyone is tired of the pandemic, and we all understand the desire to gather and socialize, but it is just not worth it,” O’Donnell said. 

Susan Coffin, associate chief in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and Pediatrics professor at the Perelman School of Medicine, said that she believes students need to be extra careful at this time to make sure they are continuing to limit their contact with other students, even in small group settings, to ensure that the recent rise in cases does not continue. 

Coffin added that many people are likely to let down their guards, especially when they are around close friends in places such as dorms or apartments, which she said are the likely places and times when transmission will happen.

Students seek stricter protocols to avoid another increase in positivity rates

Harold Feldman, George S. Pepper professor of Public Health and Preventive Medicine in Biostatistics and Epidemiology in the Medical School, said that the rise in rates within the undergraduate student community during the first week of February was “quite concerning” because, at the time, administrators didn’t know if the trend would continue. 

After doubling for two straight weeks, according to Penn’s COVID-19 dashboard, the average positivity rate for all undergraduate students from Feb. 7 to Feb. 13 decreased from 4.47% to 1.84%. During this period, the University's undergraduate case count decreased from 242 to 101.

Given this new data, Feldman is hopeful that that the University will not need to move to Level Three in the immediate future. On Feb. 16, Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé told The Daily Pennsylvanian that trends they noticed were not sustained, so there would be no new restrictions on campus in the immediate future.

Castillo said that, since the Feb. 5 message warned of the potential Alert Level Three, he has seen people apply more social pressure and encourage others to be cautious. Students said they expected this message from the University, and many of them hoped it would prompt others to take the safety protocols more seriously. 

Some students are also in favor of stricter protocols now to minimize the chances that Penn gets to Alert Level Four: Campus Closure. 

Lenthall-Cleary said that Alert Level Three sets an unrealistic expectation that will likely not be imposed by the University, and emphasized that the University should create an effective enforcement mechanism for potential super-spreader events in an effort to limit the COVID-19 transmissions from large, maskless gatherings. 

“I hope that kids are going to be vigilant and actually start thinking about their actions and the consequences that come with it,” De Paiva said. “At the end of the day, we do have to follow the [Student] Campus Compact because it was put in place to keep us safe and to keep everyone else safe too.”