Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger asked University of Vermont leaders to reconsider key aspects of their plan to bring students to campus later this month, suggesting that it may not protect Burlington from a COVID-19 outbreak.
The mayor sent a detailed letter to UVM president Suresh Garimella on Wednesday outlining his misgivings about its scaled-back testing regimen, its approach to students who live off campus, and its "unacceptable" plan to only report new infections once per week.
"Despite weeks of coordinated planning and multiple discussions with your team, I continue to have concerns with UVM’s current plan in a number of key areas," Weinberger wrote.
City officials posted the letter publicly on Thursday afternoon.
The mayor's letter echoes some of the criticisms levied by university faculty and city residents who believe the plan to invite UVM's mostly out-of-state students back for in-person classes will jeopardize the city's successful suppression of the virus. Calls to expand the plan or move classes fully online have intensified as infections spike across the country.
Weinberger reiterated support for the goal of resuming in-person classes and said he wanted to work with UVM officials to address their plan's perceived shortcomings.
Last week, UVM unveiled an updated COVID-19 testing program that officials described in a press release as one of the most aggressive in the country. But the plan to test all students once a week through September 18 was not as stringent as the twice-weekly plan that the university had been been advertising to the public for much of the summer.
The change apparently took the mayor by surprise. On July 29, Weinberger sent a reassuring tweet to a concerned resident who'd questioned UVM's plan, specifically mentioning the large number of tests planned. He wrote that a full presentation of the college's plan was scheduled for this week.
When Weinberger held his weekly press conference on Wednesday, he said he had hoped a UVM rep could have been there to talk about a plan but noted instead that he could not fully support UVM's current approach.
Weinberger's letter to Garimella indicates that he learned of the revised testing plan on July 30, a day before UVM announced it publicly.
It also makes reference to a recent study by researchers at Yale University, Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital that concluded college students may need to be tested as often as every two or three days to effectively contain COVID-19 outbreaks on campus.
One of the study's authors, David Paltiel, told Seven Days last week that the low prevalence of COVID-19 in Vermont may justify less frequent testing. He also commended the way UVM's approach began with weekly surveillance but would adjust as the semester goes on and conditions change.
"I don’t see anything unreasonable here," he said.
The frequency of UVM's testing program was only one issue Weinberger raised with Garimella. The mayor also urged the university to suspend students who don't comply with testing requirements and said officials must brief the city "immediately" on all new infections.
Further, he said UVM should disclose a contingency plan in case its testing ability falters. The university, along with several others in Vermont and dozens across the Northeast, is contracting with the Massachusetts-based Broad Institute to process thousands of weekly tests. Any problems getting timely results would require a "dramatic re-thinking" of the university's plan, Weinberger wrote.
Over the last few weeks, hundreds of residents have signed a letter arguing that the influx of college students will lead to a broader spike in cases. In recent interviews, signatories have expressed particular concern about UVM's ability to crack down on off-campus parties in surrounding neighborhoods. They've called for neighborhood patrols to catch and discipline any reckless revelers.
Weinberger criticized UVM officials for not indicating how they would deal with such gatherings.
"During the pandemic, this is not only a quality of life issue but is now, potentially, a matter of life and death," he wrote.
Since July 28, UVM has not fulfilled Seven Days' requests to interview administrators about the university's plans. A university spokesperson said Friday morning that UVM plans to respond to Weinberger directly and will make its response public.
"We have had many discussions with the city, and we welcome the opportunity to continue those discussions," spokesperson Enrique Corredera said. "The university is carefully and aggressively taking all appropriate steps to ensure that our strategy meets or exceeds the state's Safe and Healthy Return to Campus guidance."