Significant Increase of COVID-19 Cases at YU Reported Around Thanksgiving Weekend

By: Temmi Lattin  |  December 7, 2020

By Temmi Lattin

On Friday Dec. 4, 17 COVID-19 positive cases were reported on New York State’s (NYS) Yeshiva University School Report between Nov. 21 and Dec. 4. This is a significant increase compared to the four cases reported in the previous school report’s two week period.

The school report’s dashboard, run by NYS Department of Health (DOH), originally reported all of Yeshiva University’s cases together, including the undergraduate schools, Cardozo, Ferkauf, and RIETS. That dashboard reported two cases from Oct. 10-23.  On Nov. 7, YU was split into three trackers, with a dashboard solely for the Wilf and Beren campuses. As delineated by a YU spokesperson, YU reports their COVID-19 cases at the same time each day to the DOH, who then is responsible for updating the tracker. The spokesperson shared with the YU Observer that “it may take a few days for the cases to appear on the dashboard.” This updated report comes the week following Thanksgiving holiday, but Vice Provost for Student Affairs Dr. Chaim Nissel explained to the YU Observer that a majority of the listed cases “reflect students who tested positive and were already in quarantine prior to the holiday weekend.” Six cases were reported between Dec. 2 and Dec. 4 when the Nov 30. test results following the holiday, came back.

After consistently rising for weeks, New York’s COVID-19 state-wide positivity rate hit over 4% on Nov. 29, the highest rate since May. Though YU reduced COVID-19 testing from twice to once a week on Nov. 5, the university decided to switch back to testing twice a week on Nov. 13, in anticipation of the Thanksgiving holiday, as described in a Nov. 13 email from President Ari Berman. 

In addition to the 17 positive cases, there are a reported 17 students quarantined and zero students in isolation. According to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) guidelines, quarantine is defined as a 14 day stay at home period for someone in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 and isolation is defined as 10 day stay at home period for someone who is infected with COVID-19. The tracker, which includes students isolating both on and off campus, shows no students in isolation, thought 17 tested positive. When asked about this discrepancy Dr. Nissel clarified to the YU Observer that “the DOH dashboard is inaccurate regarding the number of our students in isolation, and did not properly reflect the information we had submitted.” As of Thursday Dec. 4, between the two undergraduate campuses, there were nine students in isolation and 25 in quarantine.

Of these 17 positive cases, four of them are listed as part of campus administered testing, so the other 13 from off campus tests must have been performed by a private provider or state or local health department. Dr. Nissel declined to comment on the percentage of these students on Beren or Wilf campuses, and whether the students were dorming or living off campus.

This increase in cases comes on the heels of YU’s Thanksgiving break. In a Nov. 12 email to YU students and parents, Dr. Nissel urged students to stay on campus for the holiday, mirroring the CDC’s recommendation to avoid travel. To incentivize students to stay in, Senior Director of Office of Student Life Rabbi Josh Weisberg announced the YU Thanksgiving Experience via email on Nov. 17, with meals and programming for students. Again, on Nov. 19, in an email titled “Safety during Thanksgiving Shabbat,” Dr. Nissel reiterated that while YU had, so far, low rates of COVID-19, there was a concern of this changing if students leave campus for the holiday. 

A meta-analysis of COVID-19 studies published on Nov. 19 showed that while most people have a five day incubation period, the time in between exposure and symptom development, it can be as long as 14 days or, in rare cases, longer. The Nov. 30 testing date was only four days after Thanksgiving day, not yet after the median incubation period, when a majority of the cases would have likely been detected. YU students have not yet received their results from the Dec. 2 testing, which would be five days after Thanksgiving day. 

Following this new study, on Dec. 2, the CDC put forth new recommendations for quarantine after an exposure, shortening the 14 day period to 10 days or seven days followed by a negative test. The CDC underscored that this shortened time leaves a small risk that the person could still transmit the virus. In response to this new development, Dr. Nissel shared that “we are reviewing the new CDC quarantine guidelines with our medical director” in addition to consulting with the NY DOH, and “will provide updates when available.”

In his quote to the YU Observer, Dr. Nissel also stressed the importance of following proper guidelines such as masks and social distancing, highlighting that this extends to “not hosting or participating in small meals and get-togethers in their dorm rooms or apartments both on or off campus.” Nissel called on students who are not feeling well or were in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 to stay home or in your dorm room and contact YU’s quarantine coordinator to put together a plan for a safe return to campus, concluding that “we need everyone’s help in keeping our campuses safe.”