COVID-19 Response weekly update: August 22

COVID-19 response weekly update

Dear colleagues,

Today I write to report on issues we experienced with our testing program as well as a few other updates.

We’ve discovered some anomalies with the test results we received this week from one of our three providers. I’m going to explain in detail what we’ve discovered and how we discovered it, but the bottom line is this: Dozens of people whose initial tests showed them to be COVID-positive have been retested twice and all but one of those have turned out to be negative.

Houston is in the midst of a significant COVID surge and the Delta variant has shown strikingly high levels of infectiousness. We must be particularly vigilant and not assume that the mitigation strategies that proved so effective last year, with a less infectious set of variants, will prove effective now. So we need an accurate understanding of infections in our community as most of our people return to campus for the fall semester. To perform a thorough baseline assessment, we need about three weeks of good survey data for the entire population on campus – hence our current weekly testing requirement.

Just prior to the start of O-Week, on Aug. 13, we began ramping up our testing program with our three different test providers. Over the last 9 days we’ve run about 4,500 tests. The initial results for this period showed 81 positive results, with about half coming in a single day on Thursday. This positivity rate of 2% is much lower than the surrounding community. (The average during the past week for Texas Medical Center testing is about 15%, and for the entire city of Houston it’s more than 20%.) But for Rice, a 2% rate would be significantly higher than our historical positivity rate of 0.24% over the last year when we ran about 150,000 tests. This unusual campus positivity rate prompted us to take quick action and assume a more cautionary posture until we could determine whether there was a significant risk of widespread infection.

When we examined the results a few days ago, we suspected something was wrong. Those results didn’t seem right for a number of reasons: Over 90% of the positive infections came from a single test provider; three-quarters of the positive tests were from people who reported no symptoms; the positive results were widely scattered across various groups in our population, with only one potential cluster that seemed more likely to be associated with their proximity to a particular testing location; and over 90% of the reported infections were for people who were fully vaccinated.

We then reviewed the detailed data and noted some very unusual patterns in the results that suggested there was a possible issue with a testing provider rather than a broader campus outbreak. When we consulted with that provider, we learned that they had begun using a different protocol than they had previously used at Rice, resulting in significant differences in how test results are decided. This change in testing protocol had not been disclosed to Rice. We asked that they immediately revert to their prior testing protocol and they have done so.

Then we retested about 50 people who initially tested positive. Each of them was tested two additional times, on two different days, by two different test providers, and all but one came back negative. Based on the anomalies and the two follow-up negative tests from other providers, we concluded that these people who were previously treated as positive were in fact negative, so they were released from isolation. The people whose positive tests were verified remain in isolation.

These testing data anomalies were part of the reason we decided to take most of our classes on-line for the first two weeks, until Sept. 3, as a precautionary measure. We’ll largely leave those plans in place, because many of our students and faculty have already made their own plans in accordance with that schedule. We will use this time to assess any other possible measures that we might put in place. We’re going to make some operational adjustments that will be announced shortly, but right now we anticipate returning to fully in-person classroom instruction in two weeks.

Students who we asked to delay moving on campus until after Sept. 3 are now welcome to move in as soon as they want. If you’re one of those students, we ask you to notify Housing and Dining about your return date using this form by Aug. 31, but only if the date is changing. Students must email their return dates to ricehousing@rice.edu in order to receive a credit for room and board.

Our commitment is to be fast, flexible and nimble responding to anything involving the safety of individuals and the overall health of our community. We recognize and regret that these testing anomalies have caused tremendous difficulties for all involved.

And now, for a few other updates.

Testing. You can schedule a test here. The testing site locations and hours are available here.

If you have any COVID-like symptoms at all, do not schedule a test through our on-line portal. Instead, you must fill out a health reporting form and a test for symptomatic people will be scheduled for you. If you feel sick, stay home. If you are an employee, notify your supervisor that you will not be reporting for work.

Testing statistics dashboard. The dashboard has been relaunched and can be found on the COVID-19 website. It shows our test data beginning with the relaunch of our screening program on Aug. 13. Since that time, our positivity rate is about 0.6%, which is consistent with rates we have experienced in the past during a surge in the surrounding community. You will also find a link to our historical test statistics on this website.

Vaccination status of Rice community. So far, 95% of our current population of about 12,400 people has responded to the vaccination survey. The results as of today are:

% Responding to Survey % of Total Population of 12,400 Reporting Vaccination
Undergrad Students 99% 96%
Grad Students 95% 89%
Faculty 91% 89%
Staff 95% 87%

Approximately 230 people (1.9% of our total population) who have filled out the survey have indicated they do not intend to be vaccinated.

Vaccine clinics. We’re happy to announce Rice is partnering with the Houston Health Department to provide vaccine clinics. Unvaccinated international students are the main group we hope will take advantage of this opportunity, but all Rice employees and students, as well as their families, are welcome. We’re planning first dose vaccine clinics from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 25, Thursday, Aug. 26, and Friday, Aug. 27. Each clinic will be held in the East Gym at Tudor Fieldhouse. There are approximately 100 appointments available each day.

To schedule your appointment visit: www.hhdvaccinations.org and create an account. After you answer the screening questions, you will be asked to enter an invite code. For first dose clinics in August, enter invite code: RiceU-PfizerDose1, then provide the requested information and consent to register. If these dates aren’t convenient for you, there are plenty of other places where you can get a free vaccine in Houston, and you can find some of the other options at this link. linked here.

Alternative work arrangements. As a reminder, we currently have in place a more flexible policy for work arrangements while we assess the evolving situation. Alternative work arrangements may be appropriate for some employees, jobs and organizational units, but they may not be appropriate or possible for others. Any alternative work arrangements must be approved by the employee’s supervisor, then by the appropriate senior administrator (e.g., dean, vice president), with the expectation that all offices will have some presence on campus. This more flexible work environment will remain in place until Sept. 30.

Kevin E. Kirby

Chair of the Crisis Management Advisory Committee

Vice President for Administration