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UMass COVID cases rising steadily

  • A student is directed to a hand sanitizing station, left, before proceeding to a nose-blowing station, right, which were requirements before entering the Mullins Center for COVID-19 testing, Monday, Aug. 17, 2020 at the University of Massachusetts.



Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 13, 2020

AMHERST — COVID-19 cases at the University of Massachusetts have continued to climb, with the university reporting 23 more over last weekend.

That brought to 121 the number of those connected with UMass who have tested positive since Aug. 6. Slightly more than 100 of these cases have been reported since Sept. 25, when the university announced that a cluster of 13 students had tested positive, bringing the cumulative total at UMass to 33 at the time. All of the students had socialized together, and some also attended a party together. That cluster has now grown to 33 cases.

But cases are also spiking among students not connected to the cluster.

“While one cluster was related to a recent party, we are also seeing that as more off-campus students are coming in for testing, the number of positive cases in the overall population has been increasing,” UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said Monday.

After announcing the cluster, UMass began directing all students living off-campus to come to campus twice a week for COVID-19 testing. Prior to this point, the university required off-campus students who were attending in-person classes, research labs or work on campus to be tested twice-weekly and encouraged all students to come in for testing.

Of the cases, 114 involve off-campus students. One on-campus student also tested positive, in addition to four staff and two faculty members.

Brandi Hephner LaBanc, vice chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life at UMass, also connected the rising case counts with increased testing.

“This response and the cooperation with contact tracers has resulted in another increase in our case numbers,” Hephner LaBanc said in an email sent to students on Thursday. “While this increase is deeply concerning for all of us, your cooperation and engagement with public health practices at the university has allowed us to detect the trend early, give students who test positive the support they need, and reduce the spread more efficiently.”

Amherst’s active COVID-19 case count, however, dropped from 80 on Sunday to 45 on Monday. Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said this decline is attributed to people coming out of isolation and no longer being part of the active cases.

Party patrol

Amherst Police continued to respond to a number of small parties over the weekend, issuing 11 tickets, for $300 apiece, to college-age people violating the town’s noise bylaw.

The most significant incident took place at 6:42 p.m. Saturday in a quad at Townehouse Apartments, 50 Meadow St. There, a party organized by a handful of residents featured loudspeakers and tables for beer pong, with no social distancing or masks evident, and many of those attending described as being huddled together, according to call logs supplied by the department.

In addition to three noise tickets issued to residents, two other people are being summoned to court for being minors in possession of alcohol. Four more noise tickets were issued at 7:16 p.m. at the same complex, while the final four tickets during the first weekend in October were given to Puffton Village residents playing loud music and drinking games inside the home at 1:24 a.m. Sunday.

Schoolchildren’s plea

Meanwhile, the apparently continued flouting of measures to protect public health, and the rising number of cases among UMass students living off campus prompted about 15 parents and their children to gather at Kendrick Park in downtown Amherst Friday evening and launch an action called “Amherst for Responsible COVID Practices: Help our children return to school!”

The new COVID-19 cases in Amherst last week pushed the number of positives over the threshold in a tentative agreement between the Amherst-Pelham Education Association union and school officials for continuing all remote instruction, meaning that preschoolers, kindergartners and first graders, along with special populations, who were supposed to be back in classrooms Oct. 1 will not be able to go back to school until Oct. 15, at the earliest. In addition, each phase of reopening has been pushed back two weeks.

Rebecca Dingo, one of the parents who organized the rolling rally that started at 8 p.m., said cars were decorated with signs and noisemakers and moved at a slow pace through apartment complexes in North Amherst, the campus and streets adjacent to the campus to inform students directly that reckless behavior has a ripple effect on the community.

Dingo said children, many of whom had been counting down the days to going back to school, were able to shout out from the caravan at college students, some already gathered on lawns or walking on downtown streets with alcohol they had purchased: “Wear your masks so I can go to school” and “Please party safely.”

“Our children feel like the students need to understand that if they have to wear masks and social distance just to see their friends, college students should be able to do so, as well,” Dingo said.

Parents hope that the action will have an impact and that students will understand the direct communication from youths.

If students can refrain from risky behavior over two weeks, Dingo said, that would be enough time to get COVID-19 numbers down, and Amherst could be in a better place to have no more school reopening delays.

“Those of us with young kids, it’s hard to get any work done,” Dingo said. “It’s deeply, deeply frustrating because our numbers were so low for so long.”