September 7, 2020
Members of the Georgia Tech Community:
I want to thank you for all you have done over the past weeks to contain the spread of Covid-19 in our community. I know it hasn’t been easy on anyone — students, faculty, or staff. But we are beginning to see signs of improvement thanks to all the precautions taken by everyone, the intensive surveillance testing system we are regularly participating in, and the careful isolation and quarantining of positive cases and those who have been exposed to them. As we come back from Labor Day weekend, it is particularly important that we all commit to being tested. If we keep our guard up, and we all continue to do our part, I am confident that we will be able to contain the health risk while we deliver on our important education, research, and service missions.
Here are some of the datapoints that make me cautiously optimistic. Since the start of the fall semester, the number of new daily cases in our community grew from low single digits to a peak of 91 on August 27, then it began declining to as low as four cases on September 6. The seven-day trailing average, a less noisy signal, peaked at 58 cases on August 30 and has since declined to 21 as of September 7. Surveillance testing of asymptomatic students, faculty, and staff found 117 positives among 6,975 samples collected during the first week of class (1.7%), 261 out of 10,080 during the second week (2.6%), and 130 out of 9,225 this past week (1.4%).
Of the cases reported between August 17 (the first day of classes) and September 6, more than 95% (or 634) were students. Over that period, the number of daily cases among staff and faculty has remained at the same low single-digit levels we registered prior to move-in. The data from surveillance testing shows that the de-densification of classrooms and workspaces; the safety measures established in all our facilities; and the commitment of our community to physical distancing, increased hygiene, and wearing masks while on campus are having the intended effects.
I realize that a big part of the college experience is the social life that happens outside the classroom — in residence halls, Greek houses, off-campus apartments, and elsewhere. Unfortunately, that is also our biggest vulnerability in terms of infection spread. Our challenge is to find safe forms of social interaction that enrich students’ lives without putting anyone at risk.
I very much appreciate what our students have done to avoid large gatherings, especially indoors and in settings where it is difficult to maintain adequate physical distancing. I encourage students to remain vigilant and to continue to avoid risky situations. And I encourage our entire community to creatively think of ways to facilitate safe social interactions. For example, our Facilities team has installed several tents throughout campus that can be used to host outdoor events while significantly reducing the risk of contagion relative to indoor spaces. Vice President of Student Life and Dean of Students John Stein and his team have planned a number of safe outdoor and physically distanced events and are ready to support any ideas students may have that can enrich campus life without putting anyone at risk.
On the academic side, the efforts of our faculty to transform their courses into a hybrid format have been instrumental in reducing density in our classrooms and academic buildings. Yet these changes have inevitably also reduced the opportunities for students to interact with their faculty and with other students in their classes. As our data continues to support the effectiveness of our campus safety protocols, I encourage our faculty to think of additional ways to facilitate safe face-to-face learning interactions that will enrich the academic experience of our students.
Finally, I’d like to remind anyone on campus to test weekly. A team of faculty, staff, and students has built from scratch an impressive surveillance testing infrastructure involving multiple sample collection sites; a novel, painless saliva-based PCR test; an information system to capture and analyze data and distribute results; and a double-pooling process that has allowed us to process more than 2,000 samples daily. The system has been critical in our efforts to understand patterns of infection on our campus, and has allowed us to quickly identify and contain outbreaks. But the system only works if all of us commit to testing every week. This is a simple thing all of us can do to help the entire community.
These are difficult times posing difficult questions without easy answers. The creativity, ingenuity, and resilience that we witness every day at Georgia Tech, the attitude of service and care for the safety of one another, and the commitment to our purpose of Progress and Service are our biggest strengths in navigating them.
President, Georgia Tech