A quick glance at this map on COVID-19 cases from the New York Times looks much improved from the end of December, when it was solid dark purple from coast to coast. At the time, omicron’s emergence led a bunch of higher education institutions to delay starts, reimplement mask policies and even fall back on remote learning.
Now, the landscape appears much brighter, with positive cases plummeting 67% in the past two weeks, including declines in all but one state, Maine. Colleges and universities have learned a lot over the past two years, and some are finding ways to further reopen without much of a threat to hospitalizations or deaths, especially among student populations.
Gerri Taylor, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 Task Force, is hopeful about the near future, noting that colleagues at New England schools have seen reductions in cases in recent weeks. But she says the smart approach is still to remain cautious and vigilant.
“My feeling is that we really cannot totally let our guard down,” Taylor says. “We’ve got to be thoughtful and intentional about how we’re going to proceed. If we’re going to decrease some of the mitigation strategies, we have to be very careful about how to do that, work closely with our public health departments and have plans in place to pivot contingency plans if things start going the other way.”
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Comorbidities such as diabetes and obesity and a lack of vaccinations (including boosters), along with the age of faculty and staff, still present concerns on some campuses. “Those are the populations we’re mostly concerned about. The healthy college students seem to be doing reasonably well except for those who are suffering from long COVID.”
There are also areas on that heat map that aren’t seeing those quick downturns. “We’ve heard from a few colleges in the Midwest and the Southwest, where they were absolutely overwhelmed,” she says. “Some people have told me that their staffing is poor. They’re unable to keep up with the number of cases. So it all depends on where you are.”
Though deaths are up 25% in the past two weeks nationwide and account for nearly 14% of all fatal outcomes among the 50-64 population, most younger individuals have not succumbed to COVID. Of the 132,000 total deaths in the 18-29 age group over the past two years, only 5,300 (or 4%) have been attributed to COVID-19, according to CDC data. For now, as omicron continues to wane – and even with the spinoff “stealth” variant already in the U.S. but presenting the same, less severe outcomes than delta – there is this thought: If the pattern of declines in cases and severity continue, if deaths and hospitalizations aren’t a factor and campuses are largely made up of students, will we see more robust reopenings and lessening of mitigation this fall?
“For us to make any predictions of what would happen in September would not be a good thing at this point, because we don’t know what’s going to happen with any other variants,” Taylor says. “In November, we had already written certain guidelines and had to adapt them because of omicron. I’m optimistic about the spring and the summer. Once you get to the fall and we start going inside again, will any other variants arise? We can’t tell.”
Taylor says that exercising caution and transparency helps build trust with members, especially during moments when pivots are needed. “If we have to reinstitute mitigation plans, people will believe us and will understand it,” she says. “We can’t use scare tactics, and we’ve got to be very thoughtful about what we’re saying. We have to be very clear about what people should do.”
One of the unique strategies being employed by colleges as they learn more about operating through the pandemic is allowing students to remain in their dorms if they get COVID, even if they have a roommate, rather than putting them in separate housing. Other colleges, meanwhile, have begun to remove masks in areas of campuses where large gatherings do not occur and also allowed for more get-togethers, like Northeastern University. Many have reduced weekly testing in favor of surveillance testing and opened up dining spaces. Could the widespread removal of COVID dashboards be next? Some institutions have already done it, including the University of Florida.
Even with a great spring and summer, it is unlikely that all protocols will disappear. A tried-and-true safety measure that Taylor says should remain is pre-arrival and/or on-arrival testing. Another is masks in certain indoor settings. Masks also might remain on campuses for a long time, even without mandates, as students, faculty and staff remain wary of new variants. And campus leaders are likely to continue to pursue improvements to filtration and ventilation systems.
After months of waiting, the CDC finally released its updated guidance for higher education on Monday. Truth be told, it’s not much different from the ACHA’s recommendations, in part because the ACHA helped in the process. The main message to leaders is this: implore your student populations to get vaccines and boosters. Fourth shots are now being recommended for the immunocompromised. Like the ACHA, the CDC is continuing to recommend masks in high-traffic areas.
“Look at the data, look at the cases, look at the vaccination rate and how things are going and then decide whether you want to decrease to any of your mitigation,” Taylor says.