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Marist extends COVID restrictions with 29 cases found

Journal staff

Marist College is dealing with at least 29 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to Dr. Anil Vaidian, commissioner of the Dutchess County Department of Behavioral and Community Health.

Where those individuals who tested positive are and if any staff or employees were infected is still unclear. The college is declining to share that information.

And while he said evidence suggests the cluster is limited to the Marist community, Vaidian said it will take two to three weeks to see whether active cases start appearing in the surrounding area.

Vaidian said the cases stem from an off-campus "party" held Oct. 3, which resulted in campus restrictions that will continue through Friday, at least.

Marist last week announced its campus would go on “pause” after discovering positive cases. The county health department at the time said a total of 12 cases could be traced to an off-campus "event." The school announced testing of students revealed that total to be at least 27 in the letter Wednesday, which was signed by vice presidents Geoff Brackett, Deb DiCaprio and Thom Wermuth, and Vaidian said the number was 29 Thursday.

The health department has advised that those 29 individuals be restricted to campus, according to Vaidian. While he is unaware of any individuals leaving the Poughkeepsie campus, he said it was "probable" that it has happened. Marist's online COVID dashboard points to that.

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"There is no way to know for sure, as some of these are people who knowingly went out to a party during a pandemic," he said. "They may have gone home or were picked up by a parent."

While the health department can provide guidance, Vaidian said the department cannot intervene without definitive proof that individuals are breaking certain protocol.

Under the school’s safety measures, all classes are being held remotely; all students are to remain on campus unless directed otherwise by Marist staff; visitors on campus are not allowed; all in-person activities and gatherings are prohibited, including athletic practices; and the James J. McCann Recreation Center is closed.

The cluster at Marist is among the largest Dutchess has faced since its total number of cases declined during the summer. A September outbreak at a Beacon adult living facility resulted in at least 35 cases "directly related to the facility, including residents and staff," County Executive Marc Molinaro said at the time, and at least two deaths.

Dutchess had 142 individuals with active cases being monitored by the department of health as of Tuesday, according to its latest data available Thursday afternoon, 11 of whom were hospitalized. The county has seen 163 deaths relating to the illness; after going from July 16 to Sept. 7 without a death, the county has recorded 10 since then.

The college in its letter Wednesday stated 27 positive cases were discovered following “a rapid and comprehensive response to limit further spread, including extensive contact tracing and the testing of over 1,000 students in targeted populations.”

However, it is not clear how the school is handling those who tested positive. In the letter, the school said they were being "managed in concert with the" Dutchess health department.

Positive cases isolating off-campus

The school’s COVID dashboard indicated most of the positive individuals were off-campus as of Thursday afternoon, listing 26 students with cases in isolation at home or off-campus. Three positive cases were listed as isolating on campus; 37 students have tested positive total since arriving on campus for the semester.

Marist stated its plan is to resume in-person classes Saturday, pending “the results of our most recent targeted testing.” Previously, it planned to resume in-person classes Wednesday.

In response to Journal inquiries seeking clarity on the dashboard, current testing efforts and the nature of the isolations and the off-campus event, Marist Director of Media Relations Julia Fishman on Thursday said “Everything we have to say about this matter is on our website — both on the dashboard and in the communications you can access.”

Marist also has not stated what, if any, disciplinary actions will result from the outbreak. In the letter, the school said its student conduct office “is currently investigating the nature of the off-campus event and any violations of policy associated with it; any individuals in violation of college policy will be disciplined swiftly and appropriately.”

Two groups of Marist students were suspended in August after attending off-campus events, and the school has, on multiple occasions, put dorms under temporary quarantine. After its initial incident in August, in which 15 students were suspended, President Dennis J. Murray raised the possibility that the campus could close with all instruction shifting online.

Marist is not the only area college restricted to remote-learning only. Amid a spike in positive cases in Orange County, including at least six in a span of two weeks on its Newburgh campus, Mount Saint Mary College announced it would engage all classes in distance learning until at least Oct. 25.