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Five Colleges report collective total of 20 confirmed COVID-19 cases

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, as seen in June. STAFF FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The Grecourt Gates of Smith College on Elm Street in Northampton. STAFF FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 9/15/2020 2:24:04 PM

AMHERST — As colleges and universities around the country bring students back to campus with varying degrees of success, confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the Five Colleges have remained relatively low so far.

According to data released by the colleges, the University of Massachusetts Amherst has recorded 14 confirmed cases as of Monday afternoon; Amherst College has reported three; Mount Holyoke College two; Smith College one; and Hampshire College zero, for a collective total of 20 cases.

Kathleen Szegda, director of community research and evaluation at the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, said these statistics are promising, but that people must continue to practice social distancing to keep rates down.

“I think that the rates are low, but it’s important to remain cautious and vigilant and to promote the prevention methods,” said Szegda, who is also an adjunct faculty member at UMass. “Even though rates are low, it’s really critical to remind students of what needs to take place en masse,” such as staying 6 feet apart and wearing masks.

Around 1,100 UMass students returned to campus in August — down from its usual population of around 14,000. Testing so far has been mostly limited to the on-campus community, though the university announced last week that asymptomatic testing will now be offered to all UMass students living in the Amherst area.

“We will have to see what happens, as students came back recently,” Szegda said, “and whether the numbers — which are fairly low — persist. But it seems they’re doing a good job in terms of monitoring and having systems to do so.”

The university has recorded a 0.04 percent overall positivity rate for COVID-19 tests so far.

Not all colleges around the country have been able to contain cases, with some becoming cautionary tales for how rapidly the virus can spread given the opportunity.

The University of Notre Dame, which suspended in-person classes in August due to outbreaks, has recorded 654 cases since early that month, according to its COVID-19 dashboard. Also in August, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill called off in-person classes and sent students home when more than 130 students tested positive for the virus within the first week of classes. Since July, 646 students have now tested positive, according to data released by UNC Chapel Hill.

Limiting the number of students allowed on campus locally and enacting “quite a few” public health precautions likely has played a significant role in keeping numbers low, Szegda said.

State and local governments can also play a role, Szegda added, noting that some states are not enforcing social distancing policies to the same degree as Massachusetts.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.

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