Battling omicron on Hope’s campus

Throughout the busy holiday season, a new variant of COVID-19 caused millions of Americans to get sick and yet again disrupted most aspects of society.

Omicron emerged as a concerning variant at the end of November after its quick spread was discovered in South Africa, where the mutation originated. The new mutation is much more contagious than previous variants, and this is because of mutations in the spike protein that allow the virus to be more transmissible, according to UC Davis Health. The variant appears to be less severe than prior variants; however, this milder course of illness is mostly seen in vaccinated individuals. Additionally, some of the trademark COVID-19 symptoms, such as losing taste and smell, appear to be less common with this variant. 

Vaccines remain the most effective way to combat omicron because although breakthrough cases can occur for those with the vaccine, it also has prevented numerous cases of serious disease and hospitalization. Vaccine boosters are also recommended for those 16 and older who received their second dose of the vaccine six or more months ago. Approximately 64.5% of Michigan residents are fully vaccinated, according to the state of Michigan’s website.

At the end of December, the CDC began advising a five-day quarantine after numerous flight delays, school cancellations and business closures began taking hold as so many people became sick and were unable to work during their 10-day isolations. As long as individuals are asymptomatic or have resolving symptoms, five-day isolation periods were effective as long as the individual was diligent about mask-wearing the next five days, regardless of vaccination status. According to the CDC, “The change is motivated by science demonstrating that the majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness, generally in the one to two days prior to the onset of symptoms and the two to three days after.”

As the new semester began, so did increased COVID-19 mitigation measures. All students had to either submit a negative test taken within 24 hours of arrival or take a test upon arrival. Students who have received a positive test within the past 90 days were exempt. Any student who tests positive must complete ten days of isolation regardless of vaccination status, and any student who is named a close contact of someone who tested positive must quarantine for five days unless they are fully vaccinated with a booster, fully vaccinated but not within six months of a booster or have received a positive test in the past 90 days. Increased surveillance testing, regardless of vaccination status, has also been implemented.

One of many signs around campus reminding students to wear their masks

Additionally, some professors have begun requiring students to wear KN95 or N95 masks and have had to revise semester plans to accommodate students requiring virtual instruction. Rush events for Greek Life initially began virtually, and have continued to adhere to strict testing requirements as well as masking and social distancing policies. Athletes have been continuing their testing protocols as well. The annual winter SAC event, Winter Fantasia, was also canceled at the last minute due to concerns over rising case numbers. 

In the first few weeks of the semester, Hope College recorded some of its highest positive case counts ever since the start of the pandemic. Although the positivity rate from the arrival and pre-arrival testing was about 6%, which was lower than expected, a significant number of students found themselves testing positive or marked as a close contact within the first few weeks of classes. This high number of cases caused numerous disruptions across campus, including having some classes shift to remote learning or modify semester schedules.

As Hope moves into a new semester with new challenges, relying on one another is an important aspect of moving forward. As President Matthew Scogin said in a recent Campus Health update, “I’m praying, as indeed many are, that this Omicron variant is indeed the beginning of the end. Many scientists are saying that this might be the pivot point from pandemic to endemic.”

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