By Sohi Kang/El Inde
With a new semester comes a new COVID-19 variant, called XBB.1.5, but University of Arizona campus protocols for the virus remain relatively unchanged this spring.
The Omicron variant has been called the most transmissible strain by the World Health Organization, but it has not been found to cause more severe disease compared to the other strains of the virus.
“We’re treating that variant just as we are any of the other variants … . Just doing standard precautions, which is washing hands and then keeping the mask on,” Amy Blackburn, Immunization and Infection Prevention Manager at UA Campus Health said. “And if you’re actively sick, we’re requesting that you don’t come to work.”
According to the UA’s COVID-19 dashboard, out of 457 tests, 18 have tested positive for the virus from Jan. 17-23, a positivity rate of 3.9%. Testing rates remain relatively low and testing is still voluntary for students and employees.
Similar to last semester, masks are recommended but not required in most indoor settings, with surgical masks being offered at indoor locations on campus. Clinical spaces still require face coverings.
TakeAway Testing continues around 18 locations on campus and test results come within two business days.
Vaccines are free and available through Campus Health by appointment on Fridays between 8:30-11:30 a.m. The clinic is only offering the booster dose, also known as the bivalent vaccine, for Pfizer and Moderna.
A walk-in vaccine clinic has been held at Bear Down Gymnasium almost monthly since the fall, with the most recent one held on Jan. 23-25. David Salafsky, interim co-executive director and director of health promotion & preventive services of Campus Health, said whether the clinic will run next month depends on community demand.
“We’re seeing the numbers trail off a little bit,” Salafsky said. “We’ll see where they’re at … and see if there’s demand to continue that going forward in February.”
He recommended the latest bivalent vaccine booster to those who have not yet received it. Salafsky said that he believes the initial value of vaccines has shifted from preventing initial infection to now preventing people from experiencing more serious symptoms.
“It’s really protecting you from hospitalization and severe disease, and protecting those who are at greatest risk of death,” Salafsky said.
The COVID-19 Response Team, part of the UA’s Incident Command System, remains active in the case of another severe strain or virus. The team used to meet every day at the beginning of the pandemic, but have since scaled down to meeting around every other week, according to Dr. Richard Carmona, a laureate professor of public health and former U.S. Surgeon General.
The tripledemic and COVID-19 precautions
Worries about a “tripledemic” surfaced late last fall with three viruses appearing at the same time: Respiratory syncytial virus, flu and COVID-19. The number of cases for these viruses have seen a decline since a peak around mid-November, with the current weekly emergency department visits for the viruses at 60,133 nationally, for the week ending in Jan. 21, according to the latest reporting by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With the current flu season, keeping good health practices may be key to preventing the spread of not only COVID-19, but other respiratory illnesses.
“The common flu spreads just like any of these [COVID-19] viruses do,” Carmona said. “By droplet infection, hard surfaces, not washing your hands, touching somebody, giving a person a hug. You inadvertently inoculate them with the virus.”
However, at the end of the day it is up to the individual what steps they would like to take in light of the pandemic and what they are comfortable with.
Blackburn suggested having conversations with friends and colleagues about their practices and vaccination status.
“Then you can best inform yourself as to how you want to be. Maybe if you’re with them, you’re wearing a mask,” Blackburn said. “Or you’re with them but you’re keeping yourself distanced.”
Similar to flu shots, the FDA recently announced its proposal to offer an annual shot for COVID-19 to simplify vaccination efforts.
In the meantime, students and staff can keep updated on the UA’s COVID-19 response at covid19.arizona.edu.