In the small print of the new COVID-19 booster guidance from the growing number of colleges and universities requiring them is the notable inclusion of another protocol: masks.
Given the high transmissibility reports of the emerging omicron variant from South Africa and the still-pesky delta variant, institutions are cementing plans that include more than just third doses of the vaccine to protect communities.
The University of Massachusetts at Amherst and neighboring Hampshire College and Smith College are all mandating the COVID boosters and are telling students, staff and faculty to keep face coverings on. “We expect to continue the current campus indoor face-covering requirement to start the spring semester,” UMass Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy wrote, saying too that the policy will be reviewed as the environment around COVID shifts.
In addition to boosters, which must be completed by March 21 (the Monday following Spring Break), Hampshire College is also keeping its masks on indoors for those who are “alone in a private office or residential room, eating food in an approved dining area, and using a bathroom in a dormitory.” Hampshire officials say the mask mandate will supersede local and federal guidelines and remain in effect at least through the start of the spring semester.
“Masks are a mainstay, a proven way to prevent illness,” says Gerri Taylor, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 Task Force. “We saw that this last year with COVID and also with flu, along with avoidance of crowds, hand washing, air filtration and distancing. And of course, staying home if sick and seeking medical care, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine. They’re all part of a layered prevention strategic approach.”
Syracuse University, which has kept masks on indoors this semester, also announced a booster shot requirement on Monday. It was one of the first in the nation to have a vaccine requirement at the start of the pandemic. “That proactive decision proved central to our ability to safely resume campus activities, events and student services throughout the fall semester,” said J. Michael Haynie, Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives and Innovation. “For that reason, given data and counsel from public health experts indicating that booster shots are critical to enhancing immunity and public health, Syracuse will require all eligible students, faculty and staff to receive a booster shot prior to the start of the spring semester, or as soon as they become eligible.”
Many institutions that don’t have vaccine policies are strongly encouraging them or holding booster clinics for staff, students and faculty.
Watching the numbers
As COVID positive case numbers have improved or remained low during the fall, many colleges with mask mandates decided to relax them. The University of Notre Dame, which is now requiring booster shots, does not have an indoor mask requirement for vaccinated students.
As the winter months have pushed individuals indoors in northern and midwestern states, increases in infection have risen. COVID cases in areas of upstate New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio have spiked, along with those in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kansas and Michigan. Missouri has experienced a new wave of positive cases and has seen a 137% increase over the past two weeks. Delaware and Connecticut, where Wesleyan University is located and where the first case of omicron was observed this weekend, have seen a 60% rise in hospitalizations.
Wesleyan, which also mandates masks indoors, adopted its vaccine booster policy after it saw an unusual spike in mid-November that coincided with a rise in cases across the state. The positivity rate has since dropped, as robust vaccinations and strong mitigation strategies have kept outbreaks from occurring. “With a fully vaccinated campus, and seeing no evidence of transmission in classrooms, we expect to finish the semester normally,” President Michael Roth told the community at Thanksgiving, “We remain encouraged by and appreciative of the hard work of our students, faculty and staff in following the protocols.”
For colleges and universities that are mandating boosters, it is important they are clarifying their definitions of fully vaccinated. Does that mean the two-dose schedule or does it include booster shots? Many college websites still don’t define it, which can be confusing to students and faculty.