It has been nearly a month since news broke that the omicron variant had been detected in the U.S. Reports of its high transmissibility soon followed. Yet, there has been a reluctance from most institutions of higher education to install COVID-19 booster shots.
Only about three dozen colleges and universities have jumped on mandates. The list now includes heavyweights Notre Dame, Syracuse, Georgetown, Harvard and Stanford, which also announced Thursday it is delaying in-person learning by two weeks in January. However, others are not flinching.
What could be holding back the 1,000 or more institutions that already have two-dose vaccination schedules as part of their requirements for attendance and campus activities? A significant barrier appears to be the term “fully vaccinated.” The Centers for Disease Control’s definition only recommends boosters in its current guidance, and most institutions are following suit. Harvard decided to bypass that on Thursday, and Stanford soon followed, opting for a more cautious approach.
“While there continue to be positive signs that the omicron variant may lead to milder cases of COVID-19, its transmissibility this winter remains a concern,” Provost Persis Drell and Associate Vice Provost Russell Furr wrote to the community. “In coming back for the winter quarter, we want to minimize disruptions to students’ coursework and also provide as much predictability as possible for both students and instructors. The current uncertainty around Omicron poses a number of logistical challenges for the start of in-person classes, particularly if students either test positive over the break and cannot travel back to campus on time, or test positive upon arrival and need to isolate.”
Stanford officials are “strongly encouraging” boosters and say all students must provide proof by Jan. 31. Many colleges and universities are not mandating them yet, citing that CDC definition. While there has been no movement from the CDC over the past few months on the inclusion of boosters in its “fully vaccinated” term, infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci hinted that a three-dose standard is a matter of “when, not if.”
“There’s no doubt that optimum vaccination is with a booster,” Fauci told CNBC on Friday morning. “Whether or not the CDC is going to change that, it certainly is on the table and open for discussion. I’m not sure exactly when that will happen. But I think people should not lose sight of the message that there’s no doubt if you want to be optimally protected, you should get your booster.”
The science is showing that omicron is 70 times more transmissible than delta, with countries such as the UK and South Africa now seeing it as the dominant strain. In just a short time, the new variant has made its way into 36 states. However, from several studies done across the world, omicron does not appear to present the same severity of outcomes as its predecessor, delta. So colleges and other organizations are largely pausing before acting.
“ACHA has not come out with a position in terms of saying we think it should be required,” Anita Barkin, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 Task Force, said. “We are still currently thinking about that, looking at the relevant scientific information, watching what the CDC says and how they define fully vaccinated. If they would change their definition of fully vaccinated to include boosters, we may very quickly get onboard with that.”
While Georgetown and Cornell responded quickly to the emergence of omicron on campus by shutting down their campuses and pushing out third-booster requirements, Yale saw an omicron case and decided not to do either. Officials felt it was best to continue exams in their current format, knowing that the end of the semester was closing in.
Sten Vermund, dean of the university’s School of Public Health, told the Yale Daily News, “I don’t think we’re particularly alarmed in the sense that delta is still the dominant variant and is likely to be so for the next month or so. At the same time, with omicron being more infectious, we are advising caution during travel home for the holidays and we are likely to be keen to see people tested upon their return.”
At NYU, however, in an area already being impacted by omicron, the caution flags rose quickly. Officials called for exams to be done online and for all campus events to be canceled through the end of the semester. They shut down residence hall lounges and all recreation facilities, though they will keep offices open through Dec. 22. Although 3,000 students, staff and faculty already have gotten boosters, NYU decided a mandate was necessary as it plans for winter and spring. “A booster vaccination against COVID-19 will be a vital—and required—part of NYU’s effort to enhance the safety of the NYU community,” NYU leaders wrote when enacting the mandate.