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Health Experts Say Campuses Should Stay Open Despite Omicron

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at January 1, 1970

Omicron is spiking Covid rates on college campuses and across the nation, but it would be a huge mistake to launch another virtual semester in 2022, say medical experts. 

“We have to start focusing on serious disease and hospitalization, not cases,” says infectious disease physician Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Campuses are fully vaccinated yet they are acting as if they’re helpless in the face of Covid-19.”

Indeed, Middlebury and Cornell moved exams online and sent students home early for winter break. Harvard announced on Sunday that it will hold its three-week winter session of classes virtually. Yesterday University of Illinois, Chicago, a public school with 32,000 students, said it will hold its spring semester online for the first two weeks, beginning January 19. 

But four medical experts interviewed by Forbes say that colleges should remain open, even in the face of rising case numbers. 

“Unfortunately what we’ve seen with Omicron is universities dialing all the way back to spring of 2020 and forgetting the fact we’ve got vaccines,” says Adalja. “We’ve got monoclonal antibodies, antivirals about to be available and diagnostic tests and we’ve got tons of knowledge.” Those tools combined make it possible to fight Covid while holding classes face to face. 

Young people fight off the virus much more easily than the elderly. The rates of hospitalization and death are low for people with no pre-existing conditions, between the ages of 18 and 21, even if they are not vaccinated.

Still, universities must consider all of the people in their community including faculty and staff. “Many of them have secondary comorbidities,” says Harvard Medical School professor Michael Springer, who sits on two committees advising Harvard about how to handle the pandemic. “Our goal is to stop transmission as much as possible and our larger goal is to stop severe illness.” 

Harvard’s decision to go remote in January turned on experts’ prediction that Omicron will hit hard that month. 

“I don’t think people have come to grips with how bad January is going to be,” says Springer. “That will lead to overruns in the medical system at the same time that medical workers are getting Covid.” Sick people can’t staff hospitals. “There’s going to be a perfect storm,” he says.

Campuses will also struggle to cope with the masses of students who will test positive. “We have to isolate them,” says Springer. “If there are hundreds of thousands of isolated students, that becomes difficult. How do we make sure they get food, make sure they get wellness checks?”

Going forward, health experts predict that colleges’ plans will hinge in part on the attitude of the surrounding community toward Covid. “New England will continue to take a more conservative approach to this pandemic,” says eMed Digital Health Chief Science Officer Michael Mina, a former professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Hopkins’ Adalja agrees. “It’s the two-track pandemic,” he says. “Schools in Florida will be open and schools in Massachusetts and Rhode Island won’t be.”

Instead, higher ed leaders should accept the fact that Covid is here to stay, he says. “They really need to think about a sustainable long-term approach to a virus that is not gong away.”

See also: ​​Expect All Of America’s Top 20 Colleges to Require Booster Vaccines For Next Semester

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