UW prepares for spring semester amid county’s worst COVID surge
As omicron tears through Wyoming, university leadership says it’s bracing for a ‘difficult, challenging’ first month, during which significant numbers of students, faculty and staff will get infected.
University of Wyoming leadership said it's preparing for a “challenging three or four weeks” on the eve of the 2022 spring semester — which is scheduled to begin amid the highest COVID-19 transmission levels Albany County has ever seen.
UW President Ed Seidel and College of Health Sciences Dean David Jones updated the Board of Trustees on Thursday, highlighting the skyrocketing case counts facing the state, the community and campus.
“We are in the middle of a surge,” Jones said. “Albany County is seeing the highest number of cases that it ever has. In the last two weeks, there have been just under 900 cases. The transmission risk has been increased. It had been moderate to high. It is now very high risk for transmission in the state.”
UW’s mask mandate will remain in place until at least mid-February following action by the board last month. But a plan to test every returning student and employee was scrapped last week, when the university administration admitted they could no longer contain the virus but must now manage its inevitable spread through campus.
Seidel said it would not be feasible to conduct the pooled sample testing UW used at the outset of the fall semester.
“You have four samples in a pool and if that’s positive, then you go back and you test everybody,” Seidel explained. “So the concern was we would do pooled testing and then we’d have to go and actually test everyone and we don’t have the capacity to do that. That’s number one. Number two is we were worried as people got together in a testing scenario, would that just be kind of a superspreader event in itself?”
But the decision not to test was viewed as “throwing our hands up” by members of UW’s own faculty. One public health researcher called the plan “palpably ridiculous.”
Seidel addressed the criticism, saying the plan was recommended by the university’s COVID Advisory Group.
“I know some people raised their eyebrows, if not more, to say why are we doing that?” Seidel said. “But it was very, very well thought out by the committee that made the recommendation, and that included our science team.”
Administrators are fully expecting the record number of cases to continue to rise, and for the virus to spread throughout the campus community.
“We are most likely in for a pretty difficult, challenging three or four weeks,” Jones said. “We’re in the midst of this surge. By all predictions, it’s supposed to drop off fairly quickly. But I think in the next three or four weeks as classes start, we will probably see a high absentee rate amongst our students, our staff and our faculty as well. We’re just going to have to work hard to get through that.”
Jones said masking and mask policy would be crucial.
“Regardless of whether you’re socially distanced or not, if you’re inside, you should be wearing a mask right now,” Jones told the room of largely unmasked trustees. “We need to really continue to push masking as much as possible. We certainly do not feel that the current masking policy on campus needs to be removed. I don’t know that there’s an interest here in making it stricter, but I think we need to highly, highly recommend wearing KN95 masks. We have ordered a large volume of masks to have available to students, faculty and staff.”
Vaccines dramatically reduce one’s chances of experiencing the worst outcomes, Jones said, echoing the consensus among public health experts.
“If you are an adult who has received two doses of the vaccine and the booster, you’re generally in pretty good shape,” Jones said. “We need to really re-up our push for students, faculty and staff to get vaccinated. The data (shows) 83 to 85 percent of cases, hospitalizations and deaths are individuals who are not vaccinated … Moderna just announced last week the possibility of the need for a second booster in the fall. The more we see these recommendations for boosters, the farther behind people are getting who are not getting vaccinated to begin with. They are falling behind on the sequence.”
Some of the trustees also stressed the importance of vaccination.
“If you’re unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated, you are four times as likely to get infected with this variant, 17 times as likely to be hospitalized and 20 times as likely to die if you’re infected with this variant,” said Trustee David Fall, citing the latest CDC data.
These numbers are borne out in Wyoming, where 83 percent of the positive cases since the beginning of 2021 have been among the unvaccinated.
Trustee Kermit Brown reminded everyone that once you have COVID, it’s too late for a vaccine to save you, and asked David Jones to address “these pathetic stories that are coming out of the hospital where somebody is starting to panic.”
“They’re in the hospital, they’ve got it, they’re starting to panic and they’re saying, ‘Vaccinate me! Vaccinate me!’” Brown said. “And they don’t understand there’s a lead time for that vaccination to kick in.”
Jones said he too had heard those stories.
The purpose of the vaccine is to jump start your immune system to a particular virus,” he said. “And it can take 10 days, at least, for your body to respond in the way you want it to to the vaccine. If you’re in the hospital with COVID — as in the example Trustee Brown just gave — it’s too late at that point. It’s not like a penicillin shot that’s going to attack bacteria right away. It takes 10-14 days for your body to really respond in that regard.”
Vaccination and boosters also reduce one’s quarantine responsibility. The CDC currently does not recommend quarantining for individuals who are vaccinated and boosted who have a close contact with a positive case, though they should get tested.
If someone is vaccinated but not boosted, they must quarantine for five days, get tested and mask for an additional five days beyond that.
“There are advantages to getting vaccinated and boosted,” Jones said.