Often associated with philanthropy and sometimes with partying, the letters of the Greek alphabet have been synonymous with higher education for hundreds of years. But they are taking on adding significance in 2021-22 as plans for the academic year continue to develop.
Delta, gamma and lambda are on the radars of college and university leaders—because of their association with the pesky, intrusive and fear-provoking SARS-COV2 virus. They are variants of “concern” and “interest,” and their ability to morph is creating anxiety. Campuses across the U.S. are again masking up and strongly encouraging or mandating vaccines.
These troubling variants not only have the power to affect what could be a return to campus life, but at least one, delta, is also much more transmissible and perhaps more deadly. The jury is still out on lambda, but the mutations on its spike proteins are worrisome to scientists.
“Delta is highly transmissible. You get sicker with it and have more likelihood of being hospitalized and dying than the original alpha version,” says Dr. Robert Quigley, senior vice president and global medical director for International SOS, the world’s largest medical assistance and security company that provides support to businesses, universities and secondary schools. “Now we’ve got lambda circulating in Peru and Chile. It’s still preliminary. It looks like it’s not quite as highly transmissible as delta, but that could change. It could potentially break through the vaccine. That’s scary stuff.”
Lambda has made its way to the U.S., with some 1,000 cases already confirmed across 44 states. Until herd immunity is achieved or populations are almost fully vaccinated, the possibilities of new variants emerging are endless. Will we get to a point where we hit zeta, a reference made by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases?
“I’m a real stickler for evidence-based medicine and science. I know the vaccine works and works with tremendous efficacy,” Quigley says. “It still troubles me that there’s a significant number of the population unvaccinated and a significant number of those are young people who are in higher ed. As long as there is a population of people that are not vaccinated and in whom the virus can replicate, we run the risk of developing more dangerous variants. We’ve already been through part of the Greek alphabet.”
If Lambda continues to develop, if the virus and spinoffs keep mutating and a large part of the world still won’t accept or can’t get vaccines, there may be few choices—abroad or on U.S. soil. One would be to develop further vaccines. The other is that controversial word: mandates.
“I’m not a big fan of banging my fists down and saying this is something we have to do, but I don’t see a lot of other options,” says Quigley, a former surgeon and professor at the Jefferson Health System in Philadelphia, research fellow at Oxford University and teaching scholar at Duke University School of Medicine.
Restrict or reopen further?
Even with spikes in cases and the movement of variants throughout the U.S., it is going to be difficult to keep restrictions on college students who are keen to revive their connections and struggling more than ever with mental health issues. It also has been challenging for institutions, whose missions include serving up vibrant, active atmospheres with clubs, research, recreation and football games.
“We can’t keep putting everything on hold,” Quigley says. “Forget what it’s doing to the economy. Think of what it’s doing to the psyche of everybody, whether you’re an undergraduate student, graduate student or athlete. It’s going to be really hard to curtail any of these activities. I don’t think students are going to put up with it any longer.”
COVID-19 presents a particular dilemma, a perfect storm. So do colleges try to restrict activity and stick with protocols or gamble and allow for more freedom?
“I feel bad for the schools because there’s a liability there,” Quigley says. “They’ve got students from multiple backgrounds, some that may be immunocompromised, some that may for religious reasons not want to take the vaccine. They have to accommodate those individuals who are either unwilling or unable to take the vaccine in every sense. The rest of the crowd, they get vaccinated and it’s their ticket to getting back on campus. At the end of the day, I don’t see any other solution, except you mandate the vaccine if you want to return to campus.”
Unless the hope is that it just goes away.
“I look at what went on in the United Kingdom and even in India. The delta variant kind of swept in and then swept out. I’m praying it’s going to be the same situation here, as we develop more and more immunity, either from vaccines or from infections,” he says. “Ideally, there will be enough immunity out there that we don’t have to worry about this prevailing risk of these variants. But it’s not just students or other populations. There are tens of millions of people who are not getting the vaccine that can serve as vectors.”
As for mandates, Quigley referenced the same case—Jacobson vs. Massachusetts—that the court of appeals judge used in his ruling that Indiana University had a right to mandate vaccines. During the smallpox crisis in 1905, states were granted the right by the Supreme Court to impose requirements and could mete out fines. It worked.
One other factor could be full approval of a vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration. If that happens, it might prompt colleges to mandate vaccines. And it might not.
“Not all schools are following the same standard,” Quigley says. “It would be just great if we could have a single solution that would work everywhere. In the academic culture, there are always going to be naysayers. There are always going to be people with suspicion, and that’s what makes academia so exciting. But in this case, it’s not exciting and it can be an obstacle. There will be people of authority saying this is violating our civil rights; this is not scientifically based. It’s not a great melting pot for these kinds of definitive decisions to be made.”
Short of mandates and encouragements, what should university leaders be doing to get the word out on vaccines?
“It’s all about differentiating fact from fiction,” Quigley says. “Their job as leaders is to make sure they’re educating and they have the facts. Communication is critical. Constant messaging. With that reassurance, you’re less likely to panic. It’s the absence of factual information—medically based information—that causes all of this emotion.”