| by Mark Peluso, Smita Ruzicka, and Jeff Cason

Dear Middlebury Community,

We are writing with updates about the end of the student arrival period, COVID-19 testing strategies, procedures for positive cases on campus, and the general state of the pandemic.

We know that faculty, staff, students, and families have questions about our transition to more normal operations and about how we continue to navigate the pandemic. In this email we will address:

  • State of the Pandemic
  • Testing Strategy
  • Procedures for Potential Exposures of Students and Employees
  • Options for Remote Classes
  • Flu Vaccination
  • COVID-19 Monoclonal Antibodies and Booster Shots

State of the Pandemic

We are now living in a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, and eventually COVID-19 will be considered endemic, a condition we will continue to live with but with a less acute risk to our community. We are not there yet, but conditions in Vermont and on our campus are much different than they were in the previous academic year. Most significantly, nearly all our students and employees are vaccinated—99 percent and 98 percent, respectively—and we are located in the most vaccinated state in the nation. We know that vaccination reduces the risk of infection and provides the best protection against the worst effects of the virus, even as we face new challenges with the Delta variant. We also know that vaccination reduces the transmission of COVID-19 by as much as five times, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).   

To date, of the 2,259 tests taken on campus this semester, six students have tested positive. This week, of 541 tests, one was positive, three were invalid and will be retested, and 537 were negative. Our most recent seven-day positive case rate was 0.67 percent, compared with the seven-day test positivity average of 7.14 percent nationally and 3 percent in Vermont.

These results include students who reported cold and flu-like symptoms similar to COVID-19 but tested negative. We have had one active employee case among those working on campus this semester. While there are other viral illnesses circulating in Vermont and our community at this time and making people feel sick, our COVID-19 prevalence on campus remains low, and we have seen little or no transmission in shared living or working spaces. This could change, of course, and we are prepared to make adjustments if needed.

We will continue to keep you informed about any changes in our status. This includes updating the COVID-19 dashboard daily. As we did last year, we will hold regular informational office hours on health-related matters for students, and attend meetings with faculty and staff to answer health-related concerns. Please watch for those notices. If we experience a surge in prevalence, an outbreak of related cases, or need additional protective measures, we will inform the community via email.

We know that the best way to prevent an outbreak is to employ multiple strategies together. We also took extra precautions to prevent potential transmission of the virus even before our students arrived back on campus. Importantly, we reinstated our indoor face covering requirement, and required prearrival testing for all students, allowing us to identify a number of individuals with positive results before they returned to campus. We follow CDC guidance on additional testing and quarantine requirements.

Testing Strategy

Even though the semester feels different with the added concern of the Delta variant, our testing plan is consistent with the prevalence-based testing strategy we used last academic year. Prevalence-based testing matches the level of asymptomatic or “surveillance testing” to the level of cases in a community. 

We have received questions about why we are not providing large-scale surveillance testing for faculty and staff this semester. Last year, with a largely unvaccinated campus, we included some faculty and staff in targeted dynamic testing. These groups included those with the most potential exposure to a large number of students, such as Dining, Public Safety, Facilities, and Custodial Services. The testing also included some faculty.

It is important to note here that the Vermont Department of Health has asked us to direct employee testing to its state-run services and pharmacies, rather than to test faculty and staff on campus, to better track the number of cases in the state. This is similar to other health services which are provided through medical providers. Given our very low rate of prevalence, we feel it is appropriate to comply with the department of health request. We understand that other schools in other states have different conditions and forms of compliance, and we stand ready to pivot to broader testing if conditions warrant. We will keep the campus community informed of any changes to our testing strategy.

In addition to arrival testing, we are regularly testing symptomatic students, unvaccinated students, and students who are required to be tested in order to participate in athletic competition as well as individuals who have traveled, or who are concerned about potential exposures. You can learn more about our procedures on the Campus Status page, in the Fall Guide, and on the Announcements page, where messages to the community and students are posted. In addition, we are offering a limited number of test slots—200 each week with the ability to scale up if needed—for asymptomatic students by appointment.

We evaluate a number of factors and data in making our decisions, including the powerful effectiveness of vaccines; our multi-layered approach to prevention; numbers of symptomatic students and the percentage of test results that are positive; prevalence in Addison County and in Vermont; advice from the CDC and the Vermont Department of Health; and new developments in the pandemic. We are in regular contact with our NESCAC peers, although each college has a different set of circumstances and all are in different states. And we confer with other colleges and universities in Vermont, nearly all of which are taking a testing approach that is similar to ours.

Procedures for Potential Exposures of Students and Employees

We recognize that even with the strong layers of protection that vaccination, face covering requirements, and general hygiene provide, it is disconcerting to learn that one might have been exposed to COVID-19. And it is not always reassuring to learn that there is only a small chance of transmission and an even smaller chance of developing serious illness. Our procedures for responding to positive cases on campus follow CDC and Vermont guidance, including contact tracing, starting with the individuals who experienced prolonged exposure to someone who has tested positive for the virus (close contacts), and then to others who have a small risk of exposure, also known as low-risk exposures.

First, we inform close contacts as soon as possible by phone or email. Then, individuals with a low risk of exposure, such as those in a classroom, meeting, or event together (who are not considered close contacts as defined by the CDC), are informed by email. There are sometimes delays in this process as individuals recall their activities over a period of time and attendance lists and rosters need to be gathered. Our procedures are consistent with guidance for vaccinated individuals who are potentially exposed; the guidance says vaccinated individuals should be tested within three to five days after exposure or immediately, if they develop symptoms. Unvaccinated individuals should follow prevention and CDC quarantine guidance if they are notified that they were exposed.

For Students

Students who are identified as either close contacts or having had a low-risk exposure through contact tracing completed at the College are notified by Health Services and directed to campus-based testing through the Monday testing days at Virtue or weekdays at Health Services, depending on their date of exposure and recommended testing window. Those who are asymptomatic are instructed to wear a well-fitted face covering around others while waiting for results. They can continue to attend classes, events, and live their daily lives as planned. Students who are symptomatic, develop symptoms, or who are not vaccinated will be given instructions to quarantine.

Any student who is experiencing symptoms should self-isolate and call Health Services at 802-443-3290 to review their symptoms and be scheduled for a symptomatic test. 

For Employees

As previously noted, vaccination and face coverings greatly reduce the risk of exposure on campus. It is, however, important to clarify the processes for those who might have been exposed. Faculty and staff who are potentially exposed on campus are notified by Human Resources. If a student is involved, Health Services informs Human Resources of the dates of the exposure or potential exposure, and the related activity such as a class, a meeting, or an event. In some cases, faculty or staff may learn of a potential exposure or other illness that appears to be COVID-19 from a student or colleague before test results are received and/or the contact tracing process has been completed. Employees who have symptoms at any time should get tested right away regardless of vaccination status or whether they have been informed of potential exposure. Those without symptoms are instructed to seek testing at a Vermont Department of Health testing center or a local pharmacy within three to five days of exposure.

Any employee who is concerned about a potential exposure is encouraged to get tested. In addition to state-run resources, Cigna offers free testing to employees and their dependents who are covered by the College’s health plans for symptomatic individuals, those exposed to COVID-19, and those who were recommended for testing by their healthcare provider. Information is available here.

The Vermont Department of Health’s website provides important information and guidance on what to do after being identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19—including instructions for people who are vaccinated, unvaccinated, and those who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 90 days. Faculty and staff also should contact their healthcare provider for further guidance.  

Options for Remote Classes

Our high vaccination rate, indoor face covering policy, and other safety precautions are the best way to protect the health and safety of our community. The CDC and Vermont Department of Health do not require or recommend distancing in classrooms or other indoor spaces among those who are fully vaccinated. Instead, well-fitted face coverings are recommended in indoor spaces and in outdoor settings where distance cannot be maintained. This guidance is different from the last academic year, but it follows the science that shows that vaccination and face coverings offer the best protection. Therefore, teaching and learning in person is considered a safe activity, and it is not necessary to take extra precautions even while awaiting test results.

Faculty may, however, choose to convert their classes to remote learning for a period of time if they feel more comfortable doing so. For pedagogical and equity reasons, faculty may also want to convert their classes to remote learning if multiple students are absent. When informing students of the changed format, faculty should not specify the reason, to protect the privacy of all individuals in the class. Students should contact faculty to seek accommodations for classes they need to miss due to isolation or quarantine.

Faculty with questions related to classes or pedagogy should contact Dean of the Faculty Sujata Moorti or Dean of the Curriculum Grace Spatafora.

Flu Vaccination

As with any campus, our situation is complicated by the presence of flu and colds. Flu vaccination is an important part of our strategy to minimize respiratory illnesses on campus during an expected busy cold and flu season. Flu symptoms and COVID-19 symptoms can be very similar, so prevention is imperative for maintaining a safe and healthy campus.

This year, all Middlebury students living or learning on campus are required to get an influenza (flu) vaccine, unless they receive a medical or religious exemption by filling out an exemption form and submitting it through the student health portal. Flu vaccines will be offered to students free of charge. The first flu vaccine clinic will be held on Thursday, September 30, from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the McCullough tent.

Flu vaccine clinics will be offered to employees as follows:

  • October 19 from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
  • October 21 from noon to 5 p.m.
  • October 25 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
  • October 27 from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Locations and other information will be shared once it becomes available.

COVID-19 Monoclonal Antibodies and Booster Shots

While vaccination offers great protection against COVID-19, there are members of our community who either cannot receive vaccines and/or have underlying health conditions that place them at higher risk for complications and adverse outcomes from COVID-19. Herd immunity from a highly vaccinated population, face covering use, daily self-checks, not attending work or school and getting a COVID-19 test if ill, and proper hand hygiene are some of the more effective mitigation measures that can be used to help protect our more vulnerable community members. Use of monoclonal antibodies and booster shots for those who are eligible are additional measures that are currently available to protect our community.

Porter Medical Center and UVM Medical Center offer a monoclonal antibody medication infusion to some individuals with medical conditions or other factors that may place adults and pediatric patients at higher risk for progression to severe COVID-19. This medication can be used for treatment and/or post-exposure prevention. Appointments can be arranged for students through Health Services and employees through their health care provider. 

Booster Shots

The state of Vermont has announced that Vermonters aged 70 years and older are now eligible to schedule and receive COVID-19 vaccine boosters and can register starting September 29. Vermonters aged 65 and older can register as of October 1. Additionally, on October 1, those aged 18 to 64 with underlying medical conditions or who work in certain occupational settings will be eligible for boosters. Details on eligibility and accessing these boosters is available here.

As of now, only third doses of the Pfizer vaccine are available through the Vermont Department of Health clinics. The CDC recommends that people with moderately to severely compromised immune systems should receive an additional dose of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine (Pfizer or Moderna) at least 28 days after their first two doses. Individuals with certain high risk conditions who received a Moderna series can contact their healthcare provider about getting a third dose of the Moderna vaccine. Further information on other vaccines is expected soon. The state offered these additional instructions:

  • Find a map of locations at healthvermont.gov/MyVaccine
  • To register through the Health Department website and click the “make an appointment” button. 
  • Make sure you have the information you need to log into your account ahead of time.
  • If you have not previously been vaccinated through the state registration system, need assistance or speak a language other than English, call 855-722-7878.  

Thank you for your attention to these updates. This continues to be a challenging time, and we appreciate your patience and understanding. We will continue to keep you informed throughout the semester.

Mark Peluso

Chief Health Officer and College Physician

Smita Ruzicka
Vice President for Student Life

Jeff Cason