What Can We Learn From Keuka College?

Staff reports
The Chronicle Express

Keuka College is a wonderful enhancement to our Penn Yan and Yates County community. Recently, we all learned of a COVID event that occurred there. What can we learn from their experience?

Dr. Wayne Strouse

Initially we learned (Oct. 7) that there were 10 COVID positive cases on campus. The origin appeared to be an off-campus party which seems to have turned into a “super-spreader” event. A few days later, the number was 20 cases, then 42, then 78. Do you see the pattern? A doubling of cases every 2–3 days. We are (as of this writing) over 115 cases, and 164 people are currently quarantined in Yates County. The bit of good news—only one hospitalization, and no deaths (so far).

This occurred despite rapidly accelerating steps taken by Keuka College: Distance learning only, then closing high traffic campus facilities, canceling athletics, making the dining hall take-out only, and keeping non-essential workers off campus, all designed to control the outbreak.

At this point, Keuka College is closed. Public health is running what is left on campus, not academics. But, there is a lesson in all of this.

First of all, it can happen here. In fact, it just did. Not only did we see what COVID looks like, we also saw what super-spreader COVID looks like. We went from 1 case on campus to more than 70 cases in 10 days. That is more cases than this county saw in the last seven months. It can happen, and it can happen fast.

Next, this all happened from one singular event. It doesn’t take a lot to push things over the edge. Someone at that party was infectious. The party gave the virus the environment to spread quickly. This appears to be the way COVID works. There are some people who are just not very infectious. They get COVID and no one (or very few people) gets infected by them. Others seem to be very effective vectors (a vector is an organism that spreads disease). But super-spreaders need the right “soil” to grow. The conditions need to be just right for a super-spreader event.

What are those conditions? An enclosed space, preferably a poorly ventilated space (like a home, a dorm, or a bar). A lot of people, too many to be socially distanced properly (like a house, or a dorm, or a bar). A place with a lot of noise, so that people have to talk loudly to be heard (like loud music, or a lot of people talking at once—like at a house party, dorm party, or a bar). And of course, at least one person with Covid at the right point in the disease (after the incubation period, but before the recovery period—preferably with a cough and lots of secretions). The rest, as they say, is history. The other assumption is that no one, or very few people, are wearing masks, or that if they start off with masks, they removed them as the event went on.

Once a super-spreader event gets rolling, it is impossible to stop (think: putting the toothpaste back into the tube). The best that can be done is to contain it. That requires:

1. Identifying that we are dealing with a COVID outbreak.

2. Tracing back to the origin of the event (in this case the off-campus party)

3. Finding out who else was at the event (not always that easy at a college party)

4. Quarantining all of those people at the party, immediately, and testing them.

5. Tracing forward to who else these people may have been in contact with in order to monitor and isolate them.

So, that is the reason for closing the campus. There will likely be more cases found, not because more people are getting infected, but due to more people becoming symptomatic and getting tested. Hopefully, this will prevent community spread, meaning spread beyond the campus (read: spread throughout Yates County and beyond). Time will tell.

What can you do in the meantime? The same kind of things we have recommended all along: limit your exposure by socially distancing, washing hands frequently, wearing a mask, and avoiding large gatherings, and unnecessary trips to stores, restaurants, and bars.

Be careful out there, and be well.