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UNC-Chapel Hill is not ready for omicron

As the omicron variant races throughout North Carolina, the United States, and the globe, it is becoming increasingly clear that UNC-Chapel Hill’s students, staff, and faculty have neither the shared knowledge base nor institutional guidance needed to keep up. In the days leading up to the launch of the Spring 2022 semester, Carolina’s community members remain uncertain about the utility of rapid testing, the role of face masks in mitigating viral transmission, and the true risks associated with in-person learning and engagement. We have been tasked with defending this institution’s historic ideals against a murky and previously uncharted reality.

Certainly, what we do know about the omicron variant—and its differences from previous strains of COVID-19, including Delta—justify our concerns. As of January 4th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that omicron accounted for more than 95 percent of all new COVID-19 cases in the United States. As of last Friday, more than 28,000 new COVID-19 cases and 3,000 total hospitalization cases were reported in North Carolina.

Studies have found that the omicron variant can infect and replicate within individuals at 70 times the pace of Delta, meaning that it is significantly more contagious and has a shorter incubation period between exposure and symptom onset. Meanwhile, emerging small real-world studies are reporting that commonly used rapid tests may yield false-negative results, even when individuals are hosting high levels of the virus. Against a national testing shortage and President Biden’s recent promise to deliver 500 million rapid tests throughout the nation starting in January, it is clear that we have not yet attained the promise of “a new normal.”

One may feel reassured by growing evidence that omicron causes less severe lung disease than Delta, especially in individuals who have received a full COVID-19 vaccination series and booster shot. To date, the campus-wide vaccine attestation rate at UNC-Chapel Hill exceeds 90 percent, whereas 75 percent of all adults in Orange County and 57 percent of all adults in North Carolina are fully vaccinated. Does this not render our campus safer than the surrounding community? Perhaps, but vaccination alone does not completely halt the spread of infection, and vaccine efficacy is expected to gradually dwindle over time. Even mild omicron cases can manifest as cough, fatigue, nausea, and nasal drip.

Given the range of possible symptoms and the variant’s rapid spread, widespread absences from school and work are inevitable under our institution’s proposed fully residential learning and living model. It has been estimated that UNC-Chapel Hill will witness as many as 2,900 positive COVID-19 tests throughout the first month of the spring semester. Carolina’s testing infrastructure is estimated to capture no more than 50 percent of infections among returning students.

It is true that administrators have acknowledged our vulnerability to the Omicron variant and emphasized the importance of vaccination in conferring community-wide protection. Our chancellor and provost have also met with clinicians and public health practitioners throughout the pandemic and relied on their expertise to develop a robust COVID-19 testing paradigm in the Fall 2020 semester. We can simultaneously affirm these important steps and name that they are inadequate for meeting our current challenges.

First, and perhaps most urgently, UNC-Chapel Hill must sharpen its fragmented communication system and place its public health experts at the forefront of community-wide conversations. Our students, staff, and faculty have questions that are best by professionals who are proficient in epidemiologic science and understand the unique dynamics of Orange County. For example, if an individual receives a negative COVID-19 test result, how long can they trust that they are indeed negative before re-testing? How many COVID-19 tests can the university reliably perform each day or week? What steps can one take if they live with others who cannot be vaccinated? Should in-person programming be canceled? What should “academic flexibility” for students and/or staff who test positive look like?

Next, the UNC-Chapel Hill must develop a mask distribution program that is accessible for all members of the campus community. Evidence suggests that surgical masks, along with N95s and KN95 respirators, offer more protection against Omicron than cloth masks—cloth masks are significantly less effective at filtering viral aerosols. To the extent possible, individual schools and departments should also acquire masks in bulk and distribute them to their respective student, staff, and faculty bodies.

Finally, the offices of the Chancellor and Provost must also engage with students, staff, and faculty—through forums such as UNC Student Government, the Employee Forum, Faculty Council, and the Campus and Community Advisory Committee (CCAC)—to proactively address and communicate new data that may emerge throughout the semester. It should be noted that while CCAC was created as a vehicle to “seek input from broader constituencies on campus and in our neighboring communities,” the group has not yet been convened to discuss the university’s plans for the spring 2022 semester. Shared knowledge is a necessary tool for achieving a sustainable, ethical, and equitable response. When key stakeholder groups are neglected in decision-making, the collective community suffers.

As a student leader myself, I recognize that students, staff, and faculty are eager for in-person engagement as the endemic stage of the pandemic comes into view. We also know that virtual engagement presents a myriad of challenges and often exacerbates feelings of isolation, depression, and loneliness. But to chase after our old ways while failing to acknowledge the shortcomings of our built environment is wholly irresponsible. To that end, until the above needs have been holistically addressed, faculty and administrators must halt all forms of in-person engagement. When we do eventually return to the comforts of a residential experience, we must do so not because of loyalty to the past but rather because of a commitment to addressing the discomforts of our present.

Neel Swamy, MPH, is a third-year Doctor of Pharmacy candidate in the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy and President of the UNC Graduate and Professional Student Government (GPSG).

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