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X-Ring effect: Unusual graduation rite linked to COVID-19 outbreak at N.S. university

HALIFAX — An unusual graduation ceremony steeped in tradition is at the centre of a growing COVID-19 outbreak at St. Francis Xavier University in northern Nova Scotia.

HALIFAX — An unusual graduation ceremony steeped in tradition is at the centre of a growing COVID-19 outbreak at St. Francis Xavier University in northern Nova Scotia.

As of Thursday, 59 infections had been reported among the university community, most of them fully vaccinated young people experiencing mild symptoms. That was up from 21 cases the day before.

More infections are expected to surface in the days ahead. 

The university's annual X-Ring ceremony for senior students, held Friday, attracted more than 2,000 people to the campus. Last year's ceremony was a virtual event because of the pandemic.

"The X-Ring is a very important part of our history, and we planned this event using the best practices available to us," university president Andrew Hakin said in an interview Thursday.

"We followed all of the guidelines. We believed we could pull together a safe environment for our students and supporters. It is with great regret that we're in this position now."

The academic rite — held every Dec. 3 to mark the Feast of St. Francis Xavier — is known for its close ties to the university's religious roots and the event's mystical traditions.

"It is something that is really unique about St. F.X., and it's hard to describe," says Meredith Cudmore-Keating, the student union's vice-president of academic affairs.

"When two people who have X-Rings see each other outside of St. FX, it's always kind of special .... Magic is the right word to describe it. Students often describe X-Ring Day as the best day of their lives."

The ring itself is hard to miss. The chunky slab of gold jewelry features a large, black X against a square, gold background. The university describes it as the third most-recognized ring in the world, next to the Super Bowl and papal rings.

At the beginning of the ceremony on Friday, candle-bearers marched to the main stage where the candles were placed in an X formation. And at the ceremony's conclusion, the students tapped their rings on a wooden church kneeler to mark the time when the event was held inside a chapel.

Cudmore-Keating confirmed that about 1,000 students attended the ceremony in the Charles V. Keating Centre. An online recording shows all of the students wearing black robes and masks, though physical distancing was minimal.

About 1,000 parents and supporters watched the ceremony from a number of TV-viewing rooms, which were at capacity, the university said on its website. All of those who attended had to show proof of vaccination and wear a mask.

Student Josh MacMillan said even though the rules were clear for the X-Ring event, there was little enforcement or compliance at some of the sanctioned events that followed at the university, including a party at the Golden X Inn — an on-campus bar. 

"With drinks, people were lowering their masks, and a lot of them weren't putting them back on," said MacMillan, a 24-year-old business student from Prescott, Ont.

"The university should take ownership of that. It's difficult to control, but they didn't have the proper security measures in place. No one was telling anyone to put masks back on."

Provincial officials confirmed Thursday that an investigation had found the majority of infections detected since the weekend were spread during smaller, private gatherings related to activities held on and off the campus between Dec. 2 and Dec. 5.

"It could have been that there were a number of house parties, but I don't want to speculate about the origin (of the outbreak)," Hakin said. "We have to put our faith in the investigations done by Public Health."

To date, there has been no evidence of spread in classrooms or residences and no secondary transmission among the 4,000 people living in Antigonish, the province said in a statement. The university's administration has reported that about 95 per cent of the student body is vaccinated. 

"Our priority right now is supporting those who are positive and containing any further spread on campus and in the community," Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, said in a statement Thursday.

"The vaccine is doing its job by limiting spread and keeping symptoms mild, so this outbreak is very different from what we've seen in ... previous outbreaks. Our concern level is lower because of widespread vaccinations and the symptoms we are seeing." 

Still, the 38 new cases at the university represented the bulk of the overall total of 52 new cases reported from across the province on Thursday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 9, 2021.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press