The number of new COVID-19 cases in the largest city in western Massachusetts remains low, but officials are concerned that could change as local colleges welcome students back.
Springfield city officials have met with college administrators to go over their plans for testing, contact tracing, quarantining, and isolating students as they bid to prevent the type of “super spreader” events that have plagued the reopening of college campuses in other parts of the country.
Mayor Domenic Sarno said he’s been assured there will be zero tolerance for students who break the rules against large social gatherings and failure to wear face-coverings.
" They are taking it very seriously," Sarno said in commenting on the colleges' plans.
He said students who violate the rules could face lengthy suspensions or expulsion.
"This is for their own good and health but also out of respect to our neighborhood residents," said Sarno.
The city’s code inspection department is notifying landlords who rent to college students about the rules Massachusetts has for gatherings and the fines that could be imposed for violations.
American International College, Springfield College, and Western New England University (where WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau is located) have brought students back to campus for in-person classes.
Helen Caulton-Harris, the city’s Commissioner of Health and Human Services, visited campuses over the weekend as students were settling in and said she was pleased with what she witnessed.
"I did not see one student or staff member who did not have on a face-covering," said Caulton-Harris.
She said the city will work with the colleges to police off-campus activities.
"(The colleges) are very serious about keeping down those types of parties," said Caulton-Harris. "We are working in partnership (with the colleges) because we recognize those events could be super spreaders."
Dr. Mark Keroack, the president and CEO of Baystate Health, said the greatest threat for a coronavirus surge at the moment comes from the reopening of college campuses.
"College students will be college students and the enforcement of even well-thought out reopening plans is a challenge," said Keroack.
After a bump in late July, the number of new COVID-19 cases in the region has been falling from week-to-week. Springfield recorded 31 cases last week, including one day with “zero” new cases. The week before there were 35 cases and two weeks ago 53 cases.
On the state’s color-coded map that shows the virus activities in each city and town, Springfield moved from yellow to green last week for having less than 4 average daily COVID-19 infections per 100,000 residents.
Keroack noted that no municipality in western Massachusetts is colored red on the map, which would signify a high level of virus activity.
" All the indicators for Western Mass are heading in the right direction," said Keroack.
Hospitalizations for COVID-19 in the region have been holding steady for several weeks with daily patient counts in the mid to high teens.
Springfield did not record a new death from COVID-19 in the past week. The virus has claimed the lives of 131 city residents.