Largest cluster off-campus to date; Weinert says to hang on, hope on the horizon

18 Carnegie Mellon students caught COVID-19 in an off-campus cluster of cases that the administration is calling the “largest cluster identified among students to date.” In an interview with The Tartan, Daryl Weinert, Chief of Staff and Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and campus COVID-19 Coordinator, said that the cluster was centered around two households, and friends associated with those holdholds. Of these 18 positive and probable cases, which were not all symptomatic, one student was exposed to campus.

Weinert said that the cluster is “a bit worrisome” for the university, but not enough that it warrants a shift away from current university preventative measures. “We had seen a few clusters, but they weren’t anywhere near the size of this one,” he said. “But luckily, a cluster in and of itself, particularly because it was an off-campus cluster, doesn’t really change our approach on campus.” Weinert did mention that this cluster might change the university’s approach to communications, to make sure that people are “well informed about good, healthy practices.”

The cluster didn’t come as a huge surprise to university leadership, who’ve been tracking cases, clusters, and community spread throughout the pandemic, because of the rising number of cases across the county and country. “While I’m very proud of what CMU has done for campus, and I think we’ve done, relatively speaking, quite well, we’re not immune to what’s happening in our surrounding community, or frankly, in the entire country,” Weinert said.

At social events like Halloween and election night gathering, Weinert said, “I think many people gathered together and maybe weren’t as careful as they should have been. Those things end up manifesting themselves in rising case loads, and that’s what we’re seeing.” Weinert says that, “we are a victim of what happens in our region, as safe as or structured as we are on campus.”

Weinert says that at the end of the day, there’s not much that Carnegie Mellon policies can do to combat community spread when it happens off-campus. “The best thing we can do is to continue to urge our community members, be they faculty, staff, or students, [as well as] their extended friends and family networks, to continue vigilance and best practices,” he said. "There’s a lot that we can do as an institution to create a safe environment, but there’s just a lot that’s on individuals to exhibit good behavior.”

So if you were thinking of going to a party this weekend, in short, Weinert says, “don’t.”

“I was a college student once, I get it, [partying] is a fun part of the experience,” Weinert said. While he emphasized that missing out on social interactions can be painful, Weinert urged students to realize that “these next few months are going to be rough” if things continue as they are. “We’ve persevered through 7 or 8 months of this crap, it’s not fun, [but] if we can hang on for a couple more months, there are some hopeful things on the horizon,” Weinert said, mentioning vaccine progress and testing capabilities.

For students that live in off-campus group housing, like the two households that made up the recent cluster, Weinert recommends that social interactions of the whole group should be minimized. “When you do interact with the outside world, make sure you’re wearing a facial covering, stay distant from people, exhibiting all the best practices, because anything you bring back, you have to assume that your housemates are going to get it,” he said, adding, “when you’re living in a home together, it’s really hard to avoid that.”

“As harsh as it seems,” Weinert said, for “any optional, outside of your own household social events, just try and avoid them. I don’t think there’s any way around it.”

Generally, Weinert said that he’s been “really proud of our community” in their persistence against the spread of COVID-19. Weinert is somewhat optimistic that the campus’ continued efforts, alongside other developments, will curb the spread of the virus. “I think we all just have to really hunker down,” Weinert said, asking in a final plea that the campus community "hang on” for the next few months.