Despite widespread vaccination and booster availability, colleges and universities still have to take precautions to minimize virus spread. The new Omicron BA.5 subvariant has become one of the dominant strains and is able to evade immunity from COVID infection and vaccination. This strain is also easily spread. Institutions have to stay one step ahead of the virus to keep their students, staff and faculty safe – and their doors open. But with pandemic fatigue occurring across the country, setting and enforcing policies may be challenging.
The numbers are sobering. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), since the pandemic began, there have been more than 91 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. More than one million people in the U.S. have died from COVID complications. Current COVID-related hospitalizations are still high, with tens of thousands of patients receiving care due to complications of the virus. Vaccinations and boosters have helped cut the infection rate and have made cases milder. But the pandemic is not behind us yet.
The American College Health Association (ACHA) published its guidelines for higher education for the Fall 2022 semester. Here is some of the latest guidance and precautions schools should keep in mind:
Vaccinations and boosters: The ACHA recommends that the primary COVID-19 vaccine series is routinely recommended and made available on campus. At a minimum, campuses should strongly recommend that all students and employees be up to date on vaccinations and boosters, and that schools that are in a position to require the vaccines should do so. In addition, colleges and universities should clearly communicate with accurate information about vaccine safety and effectiveness and address barriers to vaccination.
Masking. Institutions should make masks available if local COVID-19 infections warrant mask use and at campus locations that require masks. Those at high risk for virus exposure or complications should use KN95 or N95 masks for personal protection. Campus health services staff should use appropriate PPE, including masks. The CDC strongly recommends that health services implement universal masking for staff and patients and that everyone with symptoms should be required to wear masks while in the campus health services building.
Indoor air quality. Colleges and universities should work closely with environmental health professionals to improve the quality of air in buildings throughout campus with increased attention to areas where masking isn’t always possible – such as cafeterias, recreation facilities and performing arts classrooms. Measures can be taken to increase ventilation and boost air filtration and disinfection.
Testing and surveillance. Regardless of their vaccination status, all individuals should be tested if they are experiencing symptoms. Close contacts of infected individuals such as roommates should be testing on or after day five or if symptoms develop. ASHA recommends pre-arrival testing for everyone moving into campus housing and attending in-person or overnight orientation as well as all individuals who haven’t been vaccinated. Schools can use the CDC’s Community Risk Assessment Tool to determine the need for testing, surveillance and mitigation strategies.
Isolation and quarantine accommodations. Consult with student health services and local public health authorities to develop protocols to identify the appropriate length of isolation for infected individuals. Consider providing separate isolation accommodations for infected student to minimize additional exposures. Schools can also proactively assign high-risk students to housing such as a private room. Additional suggestions include establishing contingency plans with local hotels, optimize indoor air quality in living spaces and make sure students can access meals and support services while confined.
Mental health. A year into the pandemic, students reported that anxiety, depression, sleep difficulties and stress negatively impacted their academic performance. Develop a campus-wide approach to support students’ mental health needs. Simply offering a counseling center will be less effective than a more comprehensive approach.