Will stealth variant and spring break bring a huge college COVID surge?
Whether cases rise or wane, COVID-19 dashboards still provide a complete look at how well institutions of higher education are faring during the pandemic. Right now, they look pretty good.
After starting the semester with a huge surge in cases, the University of Michigan’s board is showing big declines over the past few weeks. Currently, there are fewer than 20 across the entire system. Save for a few outliers, those graph bars are mirrored at many other institutions, providing strong data to back decisions to lift protocols by campus leaders.
However, data can change in a heartbeat. And those dashboards might get another workout over the next two months—especially during spring break, as students get more opportunities to travel and enjoy time off from next week through mid-April. The big reason? Though the first iteration of the omicron variant is waning, its spinoff nicknamed ‘stealth’ is rapidly picking up speed and is poised to become the latest pandemic force here in the U.S.
“We ask [members] if they were planning any more rigorous mitigation strategies around Spring Break,” said Anita Barkin, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 Task Force. “And the schools represented said it was likely they are going to do on-arrival testing. I think that’s a very smart strategy.”
That’s because, in the span of a week, stealth has jumped from 2% of all positive cases to 3.8%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public health experts say numbers here are likely to double quickly, following the same pattern as its predecessor. It is already the dominant strain in India and Denmark and has been spotted in several states, including Utah, Oklahoma and Arkansas. If it does indeed become dominant, the timing could present another cringe-worthy moment for college leaders beyond arrival testing, notably what to do about masking and isolation.
Both the World Health Organization and American Medical Association note the rapid increase in cases around the world. One study out of Japan involving researchers at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, notes that stealth omicron may have the power to both evade vaccines and dodge 17 of the 19 available monoclonal antibody treatments, though the WHO and AMA said it is not seeing the same severity and that vaccines are effective are against it.
“In a laboratory setting, it looks like this is highly transmissible, but we don’t really have a lot of data outside of that,” Barkin says. “We’re cautiously optimistic, but we recognize that it is hard to predict the next iteration of this virus. There’s some concern that people will make an assumption that a new variant will behave in the same way. We have to continue to remain vigilant.”
But will they? Some institutions have ditched masks and even their trusty dashboards because they feel good about the numbers. Could they pivot back to large-scale restrictions if they had to?
That may be a big ask, especially for those that have gone to green in their COVID-19 status, including the University of South Carolina, which lists this on the top of its coronavirus homepage: “COVID-19 Campus Safety Status: New Normal.”
“As our Columbia campus alert matrix and COVID dashboard data indicate, we are now tracking a dramatically reduced presence of COVID-19 within our campus community,” Interim Provost Stephen Cutler and Interim Chief Health Officer Dr. Jason Stacy wrote in a campus update Monday. Their hope is to have a reduction in “masking and mitigation restrictions as quickly as conditions allow.” The University of Montana is also seeking an end to the restrictions. Numerous other colleges and universities, including Illinois State University, the University of Richmond, Baylor University, Xavier University, have lowered their mask mandates in recent days.
But Barkin warns, “We can’t afford to be complacent until we have a better understanding of what this variant is, how it acts, and the severity of illness. It’s difficult to get people to reassess, especially when they’re fatigued. This has been going on for two years, and people want to be done with it. You’re not only fighting vaccine hesitancy, but you also have this attitude that omicron wasn’t bad.”
Although most institutions have trended toward that ‘new normal,’ others still haven’t slowed the spread of the original omicron on their campuses. Brown University had a massive surge in cases two weeks ago, and Yale University had 460 reported cases among students last week.
The University of Oregon, one of the most cautious since the beginning of the pandemic, is likely going to keep masks on, according to a report from its independent student newspaper, the Daily Emerald, with one leader saying, “Even if the cases of omicron are going down, we don’t believe we are in the clear yet.” Oregon’s dashboard shows just nine new COVID-19 cases of students on campus last week. In the first week of January, there were 763.
While admitting that each individual campus is different, Barkin mentioned that college leaders who want to send a message to students about safety, even during downturns in cases, can do so in a number of ways. “Sometimes we have to say we don’t really know because we don’t have enough data right now,” she says. “Our message is to maintain surveillance. Continue to assess your local, campus and surrounding community situations. Continue to be vigilant and be prepared to pivot if you have to. Be transparent in what you’re doing and maintain strong communication with your community, so that if and when you need to make a change, you have a well-informed public who trust the information that you’re giving them.”