Until now, there have been few outbreaks of COVID-19 at colleges and universities across the nation, save for early cases around re-entry testing. At that time, concerns over potential spread at campuses were tied to the delta variant.
But as students and employees prepare for the holiday break, there is another on the horizon and its name is omicron. At least one early report of its spread potential is ominous.
Cornell University was forced to shut down parts of campus Tuesday, shifted all of its exams online and canceled its winter graduation because of a surge of more than 900 COVID cases in the past week, including a “significant” number of those being identified as omicron.
“When you have high transmissibility, you’re going to have very high numbers of cases, and so even with lower rates of serious illness, outbreaks must be taken seriously,” Cornell President Martha Pollack said in a statement. “We need to do what we can to limit further spread, even though we are just a few days away from the end of the semester.”
Pollack admitted much is still not known about this latest variant, but the U.S. is learning more through various studies and research being done at a number of universities, most notably the University of Washington, where they’ve been trendsetters in providing key data throughout the pandemic. Its most recent work shows that omicron is spreading fast in its own state, where now 13% of cases tested are omicron.
“Confirmation by sequencing usually lags by a few days, but we expect the majority of these [mutations] to be omicron,” Pavitra Roychoudhury, a researcher at the University of Washington, tweeted on Tuesday. “If so, we’re definitely seeing a rapid rise similar to reports from South Africa, UK, Denmark.”
The UK is seeing up to 200,000 omicron infections each day, according to reports, surpassing the world leader South Africa just weeks after being detected. In Washington state, Roychoudhury and other researchers noted that case positives in their testing have quadrupled after just two days.
No cases thus far have been identified on UW’s campus, which has had about a 1% positivity rate over the past week. But other institutions such as Cornell are seeing the emergence of omicron, including Georgetown University and Minnesota State University at Mankato. The University of Texas Austin is reporting three cases as omicron numbers have increased within Travis County.
The difference between omicron and other variants so far is reports of its evasiveness, keyed by its heavy mutations in spike proteins. Reports from Pfizer/BioNTech studies in South Africa suggest that booster shots can prevent hospitalizations in 70% of individuals but that even the vaccinated are only 33% protected against infection. However, those data are from a region that is far less vaccinated than the U.S. and has yet to install booster shots.
Because of the data, the rise in cases and wanting to keep their campuses as safe as they can, two dozen institutions are mandating boosters, including several in Massachusetts (Northeastern, Boston University, Boston College and UMass-Amherst), as well as Syracuse University, the University of Notre Dame and Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Many have also kept other protocols in place. Though UW doesn’t yet have plans for a booster requirement, it does still require masking to complement two-dose vaccine mandates. Its campus is more than 98% vaccinated.
“No single metric can accurately capture a complex public health situation,” UW officials note in their updated COVID-19 guidance to the community. “We will continue to engage in science- and evidence-based decision making, relying on the expertise of our UW, local and state experts to guide us. Several scenarios could lead to a return to largely remote operations, including a major uptick in on-campus transmissions or positivity rates; greatly diminished capacity in our area hospitals; major disruptions in our K-12 schools or transportation systems; or the imposition of state or local restrictions, such as distancing requirements or ‘stay at home’ orders. At this time, none of those scenarios is occurring.”
One positive for institutions that have protocols in place is that they have a few levels of protection. “Omicron may pose new challenges that we will need to respond to, but compared to the early days of the pandemic, we know much more about COVID-19, and we’re better prepared for it,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer of Public Health for the city of Seattle and King County. “We know layered protections work together to maximally reduce risk, and that will continue to be the case for delta and for omicron if that becomes a dominant strain circulating in our community.”
Institutions that don’t have requirements in place should to continue to monitor data and make decisions based on this new variant.
“If there is room for improvement in how we are using our current tools and strategies, this is a good time to make those improvements, especially vaccination and booster doses when eligible, good-quality masks indoors, improving indoor air quality and avoiding crowded indoor spaces along with other COVID-19 prevention measures,” Duchin said.