Why omicron variant demands quick response from higher ed leaders

Campus communities need transparency and reassurance about strategies in place and changes that may be coming.
By: | December 1, 2021
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Public health experts agree: There are too many unknowns to fully assess the dangers of the omicron COVID variant, which became a cause for concern just before Thanksgiving.

But uncertainty about its potential mutations has sparked global anxiety. The thousands who attend and work for higher education institutions in the U.S. are watching closely.

For college and university leaders, so positive over the past year even as delta barged through in the spring, this moment may demand another well-crafted response to their communities, one that is both transparent and honest. Syracuse University was one of the earliest to take action with a letter to staff, students and faculty.

“You want to be first, but you want to be right in what you share,” says Anita Barkin, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 Task Force. “Don’t share what you don’t know. If you don’t know, say, ‘We don’t know.’ Say, we are watching the situation carefully, and our decisions will be based on the best interests of our staff, faculty and students and on the best science and the data that we have available. It’s the basics of emergency crisis communication.”

Could this be an emergency akin to delta or similar to the beginning stages of the pandemic? Maybe, maybe not. But the variant has now been identified in the U.S. for the first time in California and in several other countries, especially in southern Africa, where travel restrictions have been put in place by the U.S. government.

“It raises concerns and questions,” Barkin said. “Will we see increased transmissibility? Will it reduce the protection we have from our current vaccine? How serious will this variant be in terms of causing significant illness and death? And will it affect one population more than another age group? We don’t know the answers. The positive is that this was identified as a potential problem earlier than delta. So the travel restrictions and the careful way that folks testing positive are being monitored will put us a little more ahead of the game.”

New guidance coming soon

The ACHA is currently in the process of drafting guidance for colleges and universities for the spring. It delayed releasing it before Thanksgiving, which proved prophetic after the emergence of omicron.

“Our sense at this point is that the path to dealing with the variant will be to continue the multi-layers of mitigation, which includes all of the tools we have had over the past almost two years,” Barkin says. “So that would be to mask indoors and in public settings, encouraging people to get fully vaccinated, encouraging them to get a booster, physical distancing and to not attend large indoor events.”

That may be a challenge for institutions that have fully reopened and abandoned some protocols such as masking and distancing. The University of Michigan, recently battling both COVID and flu outbreaks, for example, just hosted more than 100,000 for its annual football game against Ohio State.

“It’s hard to reverse course, to make that pivot to a more restricted environment,” Barkin says. “And yet, that may be exactly what’s going to be called for. With delta, people were optimistic. The number of cases was falling, and then they had to scramble again. As they start to make decisions for the spring, this may cause schools to pause that were going to either drop some of the strategies or kind of ease up on some of the requirements. Hopefully, we will have some good data over the next 30 to 60 days [on vaccine effectiveness].”

How will institutions that are on the fence about mandates or opposed to them, react to omicron or future variants? “If there’s uncertainty, I think we’ll see waffling,” Barkin says. “There will have to be some pretty convincing evidence for schools to change course. Some schools are stuck because they might be in states where they’re handcuffed. Whether those states would reverse course would be another question. It seems like there’s a high level of resistance to doing that. But if it’s clear that omicron is capable of high transmissibility and serious disease, and that it can potentially evade vaccines, schools will have to pay attention.”

Regardless, this is the time for institutions to be proactive and out front in relaying key information to their communities.

“They should be messaging to encourage vaccination,” she says. “Start now: ‘If you haven’t gotten that first shot, get the first shot. If you’re at six months, go get that booster. Don’t forget to get the second shot. Go get a flu shot.’ In addition to saying we’re keeping an eye on this, say ‘we will keep you informed as we learn more.’”