To the Middlebury Community,
I’m writing with updates about COVID-19 conditions in the state of Vermont and guidance for navigating the last few weeks of in-person instruction and living on campus.
We’ll provide more specific information and instructions about departure and travel home soon, but wanted to give you a sense of where things stand and how we can continue to be successful as a community.
First, Thank You
I want to acknowledge the incredible efforts of our students, faculty, and staff in continuing the essential practices of wearing face coverings, physical distancing, and hand hygiene that have helped us to maintain a low prevalence of COVID-19 on campus. These behaviors, along with our targeted dynamic testing program, have allowed us to conduct regular testing of individuals with symptoms, and groups at higher risk for exposures, with minimal need for quarantine or isolation.
Acknowledging Pandemic Fatigue
At the same time, we as a community, nation, and world have reached a point where practicing these behaviors is resulting in pandemic fatigue. What we may at first have considered temporary adjustments and short-term changes have become a way of life. For many, there is no distinction between living, working, or studying behaviors, and this in and of itself is exhausting. In short, everyone is tired of doing the right thing.
Pandemic fatigue presents a significant risk because it can result in letting down our guard. Fatigue is coinciding with worldwide surges in COVID-19 cases, creating a confluence of new risks. And while Vermont has maintained a relatively low prevalence until this point, the state is now experiencing a surge as well. Last week, Vermont had its single largest weekly number of cases since mid-April, and is now projected to see a sixfold increase in weekly cases by late November.
Higher Risk for Outbreak
The number of people in surrounding areas who are permitted to visit Vermont without quarantining has decreased from 11.5 million in mid-July to 880,000 in late October, yet the number of people who are visiting Vermont has increased. Recent outbreaks at colleges in Vermont and upstate New York have shown that even with low prevalence, outbreaks can occur on campuses and result in quarantines, travel restrictions, and other strict mitigation measures.
Our local communities may now be at a higher risk for an outbreak than during student arrival in late August because of this change in conditions.
At the same time, COVID-19 fatigue is leading people to take risks that are inconsistent with maintaining a low prevalence of the virus. Large gatherings on campuses where groups are not adhering to six-foot physical distancing and contact guidance, visits from friends and family from high-risk areas, and travel into high-risk situations where people are either not wearing masks or are gathering in large numbers are all major concerns for us right now. Add to this our rural location, Halloween weekend, voting, potential reaction to the upcoming U.S. election, and typical end-of-semester stress, and the possibility of a campus outbreak grows.
Continue to Be Vigilant
On college campuses, it’s now clear that small gatherings can have big impacts. Without strong internal mitigation measures, COVID-19 can spread quickly in congregate living settings. This week, at a regular meeting with health and safety leaders from Vermont colleges and the Vermont Department of Health, I urged colleges to encourage students and employees to continue to take COVID-19 seriously and respect the mitigation measures so we can ensure a safe departure in late November.
To address COVID-19 fatigue, we must also encourage individuals to look at what they can do to enjoy life while still actively mitigating COVID-19 spread. For parents, it might mean regularly scheduled family Zoom calls rather than in-person visits. For students, it might mean planning activities in advance, especially before weekends, to ensure connection with other students while still continuing safe practices. For employees, it might mean doing their best to avoid exposure off campus and enjoying time with friends locally and responsibly.
The last few weeks of our semester together are a delicate time, requiring us to be both hopeful about our success and realistic about the situation around us. The Middlebury community has come together in ways that show incredible fortitude and resilience. I urge all of us to continue to work together as the great community we are, to find new ways to balance our work and life responsibilities, and to demonstrate our commitment to sharing a meaningful educational experience.
Chief Health Officer and College Physician