Sean Keohane / Equinox Staff

As Keene State College begins a new semester, COVID-19 remains a prevalent force behind new changes in regards to the safety of students, employees and the Keene community.

As Keene State Owls return to campus, The University of New Hampshire, Plymouth State University and Franklin Pierce University have all moved to remote learning within a few weeks of opening due to spikes in COVID-19 cases. The University of New Hampshire reported 301 positive cases of COVID-19 (1.34% of their tested population) the week of February 12 to 18, and a total of 506 total active cases.

Recently, for the Spring 2021 semester, Keene State College has switched testing programs to Broad Institute. Broad Institute, the leader of Stop the Spread in Massachusetts, has a college and university screening program dedicated to New England and New York state institutions. Previously, the college used Quest Diagnostics to run Keene State’s tests.

Cristy Taylor, Co-Testing Coordinator for Keene State College alongside Michelle Wood and Executive Assistant to Dr. MB Lufkin, commented on the switch in testing systems, “Quest was starting to get to four-to-five days before we were getting results, and then we had a lot of people who couldn’t access their results, which led to a lot of frustration.”

“[Broad] can guarantee the 24 to 36 hour turnaround time, and that was a really big push for us. It was all about getting your results quickly and being able to access those results,” Taylor commented, mentioning that Plymouth State University now uses Broad Institute to test their students as well. In order to keep the student body as safe as possible, Taylor announced that the college will be offering a second testing date during the week, “We are offering an optional second test on Mondays. We have a QR code at the test site that you scan that will bring you to a sign up where you can test optionally on Mondays; that does not replace your weekly testing on Thursdays and Fridays.”

Dr. Wayne Hartz, a professor of safety and occupational health applied sciences, now the COVID-19 Project Team Leader at Keene State, discussed the college’s decision to delay the semester, “There was significant concern on our part that if we brought students back early, we would unintentionally contribute to the case rate in the community.”

Keene State College officials meet with the City of Keene, Cheshire Medical Center and the Public Health Network multiple times a week in order to get the clearest picture of the ongoing situation. At the time the college decided to delay the semester, Dr. Hartz claimed there were over 300 in-patient COVID hospitalizations in the state. Therefore, the college’s main concern was the influx of COVID patients and how bringing students back on time could exacerbate the problem.

When asked about the prevalence of COVID and the surrounding colleges closing, Dr. Hartz replied, “I’m concerned, I’m not scared. We have a great ability to adapt and take steps. I’m not worried about what we might have to do. I am worried and concerned about impact and the sickness experienced.” As of February 17, Keene State College had 21 positive cases among the student population (0.60% of those tested the week of February 8 – 14).

“We had a successful fall semester and that was in large part to the students and faculty and staff all doing their part to stay safe and practice health precautions during COVID. At the beginning of the spring semester, we are facing even more community spread of the virus so it makes it even more important that we all are extra careful,” said Kelly Ricuarte, Director of Strategic Communication at Keene State College.

President of Keene State College Melinda Treadwell was quoted saying, “We knew the variants (of the virus) would be tricky– the South African variant was found in Massachusetts. We don’t know which variants are in circulation… The virus is more transmissible this time around. Masking is critical. Even at your house you should still wear a mask. When you’re eating food or getting a drink just pull your mask down and take a bite or sip and pull it back up.”

Dr. Hartz and Ricaurte stressed similar sentiments regarding the importance of wearing your mask, even within your own homes.

One of the biggest changes students can expect in the coming weeks is a requirement of a surgical grade mask while on campus, which will be provided by the school regularly. According to Dr. Hartz, the use of a proper fitting mask (a wire on your nose, and a tight fit around your cheeks, and doesn’t leak) is imperative moving forward. “Double masking” boomed in popularity in recent weeks, but Dr. Hartz claims that “more is not better”, and to prioritize fit over double masking, “If you are wearing a mask and you have glasses, and your glasses fog up, your mask isn’t tight, you don’t have a good seal.”

At this time, there are no plans to acquire vaccinations for the student body.

COVID-19 committee members and leaders, and spokespeople for Keene State College would like to remind students that even if you have had COVID-19, or have been vaccinated, that is it important to still attend weekly testing, and follow guidelines to keep the community safe.

 

Talee Messenger can be contacted at:
tmessenger@kscequinox.com

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