URBANA — The University of Illinois is expecting a surge of COVID-19 cases as students return to Champaign-Urbana for the spring semester.
The goal now is to prevent those who have caught COVID from spreading the virus further, according to epidemiology assistant professor Rebecca Smith.
“We really encourage people to be cautious over the next few weeks,” Smith said at a university-wide briefing this week.
Smith said that COVID cases have spiked at the beginning of every semester so far at the University of Illinois’ Urbana campus. The next few weeks promise another spike, particularly as the omicron variant spreads across the country.
To prevent a “secondary spread,” Smith said, individuals should test after travel and before they meet friends. They should avoid large, in-person gatherings and wear high-quality masks like KN95 models.
University requires booster shots
Even without undergraduates on the U of I campus yet, staff and graduate students are coming down with COVID-19 at record levels.
So why isn’t the University of Illinois canceling all in-person classes? The answer from university and public health officials at this week’s briefing boils down to one word: vaccines.
Roughly 95 percent of students and staff are fully vaccinated, according to the university’s COVID data dashboard. Provost Andreas Cangellaris pointed to this fact as evidence that the university community follows safety protocols well.
This semester, the university is also requiring everyone to test negative for COVID before returning to class and to get a booster shot when eligible.
Although the first round of vaccines provide weaker protection against the omicron variant, boosters do effectively prevent serious illness and death.
Awais Vaid is the deputy administrator at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District. Vaid noted that none of the 26 COVID-19 patients currently in Carle hospital ICUs had gotten their booster shots.
“Every single one of them – 100 percent of them are either not vaccinated or not up to date with their vaccines,” Vaid said. “I think that speaks volumes.”
Vaid also said that the controlled environment on campus – with its rules and high vaccination rate – tends to be safer than spaces like grocery stores, where those nearby may not be vaccinated. So far, the health district has not seen large outbreaks occur in classroom settings, he said.
Everyone must test once on campus
The university has changed testing requirements in recent weeks.
Undergraduates no longer have to test for COVID before they travel to Champaign-Urbana. University officials heard from families that off-campus tests can be hard to find. Instead, undergraduates will study online for their first week back. Like graduate students and staff, they must test negative before entering campus buildings.
However, students who test positive on campus may be sent home to isolate. This is because the university does not have enough isolation space on campus, according to Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Danita Brown Young. She said the university will reserve that limited space for students who cannot return safely to their permanent address.
The fully vaccinated do not have to test regularly after their first test back on campus. But those who have vaccine exemptions or have not gotten their booster dose yet are required to test every other day.
Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter @amihatt.