When the new COVID-19 Omicron variant appeared in South Africa, students at Tshwane University of Technology were among the first to test positive for the variant, which the World Health Organization has labelled "of concern."
In response, officials at Pretoria's public university delayed exams, according to the Associated Press. A student at the University of Nottingham was identified as one of the first Omicron cases in the United Kingdom a few days later.
College and university officials in the United States are now wondering when Omicron will appear on their campuses. As of Tuesday evening, no Omicron cases had been identified in the United States, but Gerri Taylor, co-chair of the American College Health Association COVID-19 task force. She believes it is a matter of when rather than if the variant will be detected in the United States.
“It just makes sense that there will be a case,” Taylor said. “The world is so international and people are traveling all the time, so it would be really unlikely for the U.S. to be spared this.”
Colleges must be prepared when it arrives. According to Taylor and her co-chair Anita Barkin, Vaccines will be critical in slowing the spread of the new variant.
Vaccination rates among college students in South Africa are low—only 22% of people aged 18 to 34 have been immunised against COVID-19. Vaccination rates among college-age adults in the United States are much higher, at 68 per cent, but they still fall short of the national average.
The Omicron cases at TUT and Nottingham are similar to some of the first COVID-19 cases in the United States: A handful of nursing students and faculty members contracted COVID-19 at a local nursing home in February 2020, Lake Washington Institute of Technology became an early U.S. COVID-19 epicentre.
College campuses, according to experts, are particularly vulnerable to viral outbreaks; however, proactive safety measures and frequent communication may prevent campuses from becoming an Omicron hot spot.
Campuses are busy. College students live, work and study together—oftentimes in large groups and close quarters—and they also move on and off campus for part-time jobs, internships or social events. This makes it easy for viruses to pass through the population quickly, Barkin said.
“In a pandemic, the closer you are to people, unfortunately, the riskier it can be in terms of transmission of infection,” Barkin said.
COVID-19 is not the first time institutions have dealt with an infectious disease on campus—H1N1 and annual norovirus and influenza outbreaks have both tested campuses in the past—but the two years of COVID-19 pandemic are unprecedented, according to Taylor.
Before learning about Omicron, colleges and universities relaxed some of their most stringent masking and distancing protocols. Barkin and Taylor suggested that college officials reconsider re-instituting prevention measures, no matter how difficult that may be.