Hope’s Battle Plan for Besting the Novel Coronavirus … So Far

To fight an invisible opponent like the novel coronavirus in 2020, Hope College determined that the best battle plan was one that prioritized and relied upon transparency and science.

During the fall semester, those attributes carried the campus community through 13 weeks of in-person, on-campus operations in the midst of a global pandemic. (Final exam week went remote in order to follow new state requirements issued on Sunday, Nov. 15.)

It all started more than 10 months ago when Hope formed a COVID Steering Committee even before moving to remote operations last March. Led by Jennifer Fellinger, vice president for public affairs and marketing, the group met — and still meets — frequently with Ottawa County Health Department officials, campus biologists and health providers, and other college administrators. Their mission: to proactively, openly and frequently plan for and communicate about a multi-pronged COVID-19 mitigation strategy.

What the college eventually adopted resembled that Swiss cheese analogy you may have seen popping up in stories in the media when it comes to COVID-19 prevention. Haven’t heard about how a holey food item has anything to do with preventing a new global disease? Well, the analogy goes like this: One COVID-19 safeguard alone, like a mask or testing (thus one piece of Swiss cheese), cannot beat the coronavirus, but if you stack more methods of prevention on top of each other, the holes in your defense fill up and block possible infection.

At Hope, those layers of defense include common safeguards like mandatory face coverings, physical distancing, frequent handwashing and surface disinfecting. But additional pieces of the COVID-19 prevention strategy included starting the fall semester two weeks earlier than usual (on Aug. 17) in order to finish by Thanksgiving to reduce the potential of viral spread by eliminating occasions for travel; and, requiring cogent, comprehensive safety plans for each department, lab group and office (more than 90 in all) to demonstrate adherence to state health guidelines prior to returning to campus. Finally, the college also committed to testing symptomatic and asymptomatic students regularly while conducting on-campus wastewater testing as well.

That’s eight layers of COVID-19 defense at Hope.

But it’s the testing plan that has drawn the most buzz.

“From the beginning, there was always a commitment to testing. But early on, the question was how comprehensive will the testing be?” Fellinger said.

The answer: Quite comprehensive. Students, faculty and staff were sent COVID-19 “spit” tests to complete, and return with negative results, before they could step foot back on campus in August. Pre-arrival tests totaled 3,878, of which 38 were positive with 36 students isolating at home and two on campus before being allowed to attend classes. The college aimed for, and achieved, a classroom baseline presence of zero cases of COVID-19 on day one of the 2020-21 academic year.

Then, the college continued its surveillance testing throughout the semester, securing COVID-19 “lower nasal” rapid-test supplies and processing machines to do so. “With surveillance testing, the question then was how robust should it be? Ben helped us determine that,” Fellinger said.

Dr. Ben Kopek is a virologist and associate professor of biology, and because of his expertise was able to guide the college’s testing strategy for asymptomatic students. He determined that approximately one percent of the Hope student body who were not exhibiting symptoms would be randomly chosen and tested daily. Symptomatic students would be automatically tested. Those found to be positive for COVID-19 were sent to isolation housing at dedicated residential areas on campus and contact tracing commenced, headed up by Tim Koberna, assistant professor of kinesiology and head athletic trainer.

Finally, daily wastewater testing of various campus residential zones (see following story) led by multiple faculty members from the natural sciences topped off Hope’s testing strategy. If significant RNA signals from the novel coronavirus were detected in wastewater, the college focused on that zones’ residents for rapid-testing.

All in all, that made Hope’s fall testing tally this: Since the first day of classes, more than 6,600 COVID-19 tests were administered at Hope with an overall positivity rate of 2.7%. The seven-day average for the week ending Nov. 20, which was the last full week of the semester, was a bit higher at 3.4% but still well below the county (16.7%), state (11.7%) and national (10%) averages for the same period. Testing information was made publicly available each week on the hope.edu/coronavirus dashboard and in weekly Campus Health emails to students, families, faculty and staff.

“All of this, each part, is an investment in the health and wellness of the Hope community,” Fellinger explained. “Certainly, (the investment) has not been the same as other semesters. But in terms of disruptions, we’ve been able to stay the course. And, our students have been an important reason why. They are doing so great with masks and physically distancing. They’re showing up for their surveillance tests. They’re doing it. They’re keeping us here.”

Now that the fall semester has ended and the Advent season has begun, so, too, have hopes arrived for the second semester to go as well as the first.

It will begin again on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021.*

*Editor’s note: After News from Hope College went to press, and after many recent discussions with experts, much information-gathering and analysis, consultation with other colleges, guidance from local health officials, and input from faculty and staff, college administrators have decided that spring classes will start two weeks later than originally planned, on Monday, January 25, 2021.