Graduation season is here and COVID is rising; Here’s what public health experts say about rising cases

One of Boston’s top public health officials expressed concern with the current upwards trend of COVID-19 in the city, just as a handful of large-scale collegiate graduations are scheduled for later this month.

Cases in Boston have been ticking in the wrong direction over the last several weeks as more transmissible micron variants start to become the dominant strains. The Boston Public Health Commission reported Friday a seven-day average of 426 positive tests per day and an 11% percent positivity rate, both figures that exceed thresholds set by city officials.

At the same time, several of Boston’s largest institutions are slated to hold graduation ceremonies with events both outdoors and indoors.

The recent rise in cases, Boston Public Health Commission Executive Director Dr. Bisola Ojikutu said, is concerning because it will eventually lead to an increase in hospitalizations, particularly among the most vulnerable populations.

“I think any events or series of events where people will be communing, where people will be in close contact is concerning because we’re obviously dealing with a very highly transmissible virus,” Ojikutu told MassLive. “But at the same time, we also realize that we’re at this phase where we have to sort of live with COVID. This is an exciting time for young people, for their families, we know they want to celebrate, we know that people want to live, they want to enjoy this time with their family and friends.”

Graduations on the calendar for May include Boston College on May 23, Boston University on May 22, Suffolk University on May 22, Harvard University on May 25-26, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology on May 23.

Several of the institutions are encouraging people to wear masks and said they are keeping an eye on the situation in Boston. A spokesperson for Boston College did not respond to requests for comment.

Boston University is holding its commencement at Nickerson Field and updated its masking guidance for graduation Friday to “strongly recommend” their use though proof vaccination will not be required for guests at on-campus events.

“Due to an increase in cases in the Boston area, and consistent with the CDC and the Boston Public Health Commission, Boston University is strongly recommending the use of masks during convocations and commencements, specifically those held indoors,” the university said on their website.

Cases in Boston are on the rise, per official statistics. Data from the commission shows the seven-day trend of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people has increased 12.8% over the past seven days. Over the past two weeks, the number of new COVID-19 hospital admissions has increased 9.8%, the data shows.

Several of the city’s statistics are above a level where city officials have indicated action may be needed to combat the virus. The 11% positivity is well above the 5% threshold, and the 426 seven-day average of positive tests is above the 399 threshold.

The latest COVID-19 data from the Boston Public Health Commission. Courtesy of Boston Public Health Commission.

At the statewide level, the Department of Public Health on Thursday reported 5,576 new confirmed cases, 728 patients hospitalized for the virus, and 16 COVID-related deaths. People between the ages of 20-49 make up nearly half of confirmed cases in Massachusetts over the last two weeks, according to DPH data.

Ojikutu said the commission is urging people to celebrate outdoors during large-scale events and private gatherings afterward.

“We’re strongly recommending that people wear a well-fitted mask as people have been over their nose and mouth, preferably high-filtration masks,” Ojikutu said. “We want people to use rapid testing as a useful tool to prevent others, particularly people who are at highest risk.”

A spokesperson for MIT said many of the university’s events are outdoors or under outside tents.

“MIT expects that commencement attendees who are eligible to be vaccinated will be up-to-date on their COVID vaccinations or have a medical or religious reason why they cannot receive the vaccine,” the spokesperson said in a statement to MassLive. “We encourage attendees who are unvaccinated or who have concerns to wear a well-fitting mask at commencement events.”

Dr. Sabrina Assoumou, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center, said it’s important to celebrate milestones like graduations but recommends that people do so outdoors.

“If you’re in a crowd, and you’re outside, wear a mask, wear a high-quality mask,” Assoumou said. “That’s the way that you can still enjoy these important milestones, but also protect yourself and protect the community.”

Suffolk University spokesperson Greg Gatlin said the institution’s commencement ceremonies will be held at Leader Bank Pavilion, an open-air venue the university says will ensure a safe event.

“Importantly, the university has an employee and student vaccine mandate in place, which greatly enhances the safety of our gatherings, including commencement,” Gatlin said. “While masks are optional, we will have masks available for anyone who would like one.”

A Harvard spokesperson pointed to the institution’s commencement website, which says the university is “closely monitoring the ongoing [COVID-19] pandemic.”

“Our top priority remains the health, safety, and well-being of our community, on and off-campus,” the page reads. “We will continue to update the community regularly to keep you informed of additional measures.”

Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician at Tufts Medical Center, said while she wouldn’t advise canceling large events like graduations, there is more risk associated with attending when case counts are elevated.

“I don’t think that we should be canceling graduations for young healthy people, young healthy high school and college kids,” Doron said in an interview. “But I do think that people who are at risk need to know it, and need to make personal decisions around that.”

As far as whether graduations and commencements will drive further spread of the virus, Doron said there is only one thing that’s very clearly associated with the ebb and flow of case counts.

“When a new variant comes on the scene that’s more contagious … than the last variants, you see a rise,” Doron said. “So what drives ups and downs? They are clearly variants. Maybe seasonality. The jury’s still out to some extent on seasonality.”

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