Can higher ed make it through April without big COVID spikes?

One major institution of higher ed has abandoned most of its mitigation strategies, including contact tracing and isolation.
By: | April 6, 2022
Adobe Stock

The semester was sailing along quite nicely at the University of Michigan after a rocky start during which nearly 2,000 positive cases of COVID emerged. Those numbers had dropped to just 29 during the first week of March.

But since then, they’ve risen steadily enough to get the attention of institution leaders—187 cases in the week ending March 26 and a couple hundred more in preliminary results over the past week.

“After weeks of declining COVID-19 cases in our region, we’re now seeing a trend of case counts increasing both on campus and in the wider community,” UM’s Director of Campus COVID Response Robert Ernst and Chief Health Officer Preeti Malani said in a statement. “Many of these cases can be linked to unmasked social gatherings. Additionally, the spread of the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron has grown to represent more than half of cases in the Midwest region.”

The stealth variant is spreading fast in many parts of the United States. A month ago, no states were seeing an increase in cases. Now, 21 states are showing rises in cases over the past two weeks (Nevada +104%, New York +77, Massachusetts +68%). Michigan is not one of them, still down 10% overall, but Washtenaw County, where the university’s main campus is located, is one of the nation’s hotspots, up 243%. So the two University of Michigan leaders responded with a message to students: “With only a month of classes remaining, now is the time for our community to finish the winter semester strong,” officials said.

Michigan’s increase is not unique. Cornell University had a big rise in cases a couple of weeks ago and Princeton University showed a 9% positivity rate in undergrads last week after dealing with only a few cases in early March. Stanford University recently saw 200 new cases and the same number of individuals in isolation. Aside from Spring Breaks and increased gatherings, one of the factors that could be driving up numbers is the large-scale removal of masks at a time when the highly transmissible BA.2 variant is revving up. Michigan relaxed its mask policy for indoor spaces several weeks ago, and Connecticut’s state colleges and Stanford have done the same. Most like Michigan are telling students who experience symptoms to mask up. Some communities with heavy college populations are seeing off-the-charts numbers—in and around Atlanta, there is a nearly 600% increase in cases.

But the same rise is not occurring everywhere. In fact, some are barely seeing any positive results, highlighting that BA.2 hasn’t infiltrated most counties the way Delta did last year, at least not yet. And so, institutions like Auburn University not only have reopened with purpose but are telling students, faculty and staff that the new path will be to just deal with coronavirus variants as they come—unless things get really serious.

“The university will begin treating COVID-19 as it does other contagious illnesses, such as the flu, so that the university can move toward an environment that treats COVID-19 as a present-day virus, one that rises and falls in number of cases,” Auburn officials said in a statement “The university’s goal is to transition the COVID-19 pandemic into an endemic that is manageable and allows Auburn to regain a sense of normalcy.”

So what does that mean?

There will be no more reporting of data or vaccines. There will be no more contact tracing. Even when positive rates were extremely high, the university said it had difficulty tracking them. The university has done away with enhanced cleaning measures. And there will be no more quarantine and isolation housing. Auburn’s plan is to have students self-isolate, and once they feel they are symptom-free after five days, they can emerge provided they wear a mask for five more days. When it comes to potential missed assignments or exams, that responsibility falls back on the students. “As with any other illness, it is the responsibility of students who test positive or need to quarantine according to CDC guidance to contact their instructors to discuss missed classes, assignments, tests, etc.,” Auburn says.

Other universities are also getting rid of staple mitigation strategies. Northeastern University in Boston is eliminating PCR testing in early May, with officials saying that the combination of its highly vaccinated population, lack of severe outcomes among students and myriad available treatments mean they also are leaning toward the endemic phase of the disease.

Though short-term outcomes might hint at full recovery for individuals, researchers have been exploring the potential long-term impacts of COVID. A new study released by Tulane University shows that people who get the virus can suffer from severe brain inflammation and deaths of neurons. That was true of even healthy people and those who did not sustain breathing issues after getting COVID. More work needs to be done to show the effects of long COVID, but it might be a consideration for leaders as they further reopen or try to provide support for those affected.

One other decision that could affect both health care facilities, researchers, and students and employees on campuses is whether Congress will pass a $10 billion COVID-19 aid package pushed by Biden that includes future vaccinations and testing. What was thought to be a slam dunk has met resistance this week from Senate Republicans.