Omicrons hits when college students take their winter break

Just as the Omicron variant hits California, tens of thousands of college students are preparing to leave their relative campus bubbles for winter break, a worrying exodus rite that is making administrators nervous about booster shots efforts doubling down and planning more coronavirus tests at the start of the new term.

So far, the variant’s arrival in California hasn’t turned any plans to return to campus in January, but administrators said they would be closely monitoring the data and are reluctant to make predictions about the months ahead.

Concerns came to the fore this week when a USC student who had traveled to the east coast over Thanksgiving was identified as one of the first confirmed cases of Omicron variants in Los Angeles County. It’s too early to know how transferable or severe the variant is, but early indicators suggest that while it is highly transferable, it is low compared to the delta variant. Health experts expect more for Christmas – in the middle of the winter break.

“Could the timing be worse? It’s hard to imagine that it could be like that, ”said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, Chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UC San Francisco. “Even before Omicron, I was concerned that the wonderful things that help keep colleges in check would be disrupted at a time when people are traveling across the country.”

Fear that students who followed campus directions might exit their bladders, catch the virus elsewhere, and bring it back into the community stems from the reality of last year as outbreaks on college campuses spread across the community were connected.

The biggest concern, however, remains the need for college students – and the general public – to step up against the virus as health officials across the state prepare for the possibility of a winter surge.

At USC, where 96% of students, faculty, and staff are vaccinated, the university saw an increase in breakthrough cases after the Thanksgiving break. The cases, like the student with Omicron, are believed to be in part related to travel and timing.

“We actually believe that most of our students were vaccinated in April and May,” said Sarah Van Orman, USC’s chief student health officer. “We really stressed the boosters – we certainly know some students got them later in the summer, but a lot of them got through those six months.”

Students currently need to get tested for the virus once a week, regardless of vaccination status, to detect these groundbreaking cases. Van Orman doesn’t anticipate an increase in surveillance testing, but believes that booster shots may be required on campus in the future as more cases are expected at USC, LA County and across the United States. A booster decision has not yet been made at USC.

“I don’t make predictions about COVID – I’ve learned that in the past 21 months,” said Van Orman. “We don’t think we’ll have any more meaningful data by the end of this month – but we’ll be nimble.”

Other university administrations have expressed similar plans: They will continue to monitor the situation around Omicron and the cases in general, evaluate the data and emphasize the need for booster and vaccinations.

“At first we don’t know if Omicron is worse than Delta,” said Dr. George Rutherford, epidemiologist and infectious disease expert at UC San Francisco. “There are still some overarching questions. First, is it harder? Second, does the vaccine work – how good or bad? And third, is that actually more transferrable? If it’s less severe, who cares if it’s more transferable? “

UC President Michael V. Drake said he hoped the Omicron variant would not undo campus efforts to return to campus face-to-face tuition. He said students, faculty, and staff did a “wonderful job” in understanding their responsibilities to get vaccinated and follow safety protocols such as: B. wearing masks indoors. Of UC’s 530,000+ students and employees, 94 percent were fully vaccinated by December 3; the rate for students is 96%.

“I believe that wearing a mask indoors, getting vaccinated … adequate ventilation in our buildings, these things will minimize the spread of the virus,” Drake said last week at a forum organized by the World Affairs Council and City Hall Los Angeles was sponsored. “And over time … you will be protected from serious diseases and also minimize the spread. And that is what we all have to do to help make this go away, and we are striving to spread this as widely as possible. “

UC guidelines for testing, daily symptom checks, and masking usually differ by location.

For example, UC San Diego requires all students, regardless of vaccination status, to be tested after travel, and unvaccinated students who have traveled internationally must self-quarantine for seven days after their return. UCLA recommends the same regime – but does not mandate it. UC Davis continues to require vaccinated people to get tested every 14 days, but is currently planning to lift that rule in late January – two weeks after students return to campus. UC Irvine requires all unvaccinated students living on campus to be tested within 48 hours of their return from winter break and again five days later, and to self-quarantine for seven days with two negative tests.

Esmeralda Quintero-Cubilan, UC Student Assn. President said student leaders had spoken to the university about preparations for the January return.

“My priority is to ensure that students have access to free tests and that students continue to have access to basic needs support regardless of whether or not the UC chooses distance learning again,” she said. “We hope to stay in person, but we, as UC Student Assn. are ready to support our students with the transition back to distance learning if necessary. “

No UC campus plans to return to distance learning, although many courses were online this semester.

California State University said it continues to monitor the situation around the variants and continues to advise campus communities to get vaccinated. Cal State Los Angeles said the university will act quickly if new guidelines are issued.

“If circumstances change, Cal State LA is ready to turn around,” said spokeswoman Jocelyn Stewart.

Cal State Fullerton senior and Cal State Student Assn. President Isaac Alferos said that despite the discovery of a new variant, he and other students generally felt safe, even though he was desperate to return to campus after a month-long hiatus.

Bibbins-Domingo said it is possible universities will have to postpone their plans over the winter months due to declining immunity and the need for better protection. But “the extent to which they shift depends on the vaccination rates – and what this new variant throws at us.”

Times staffer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.

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