Despite the pressure on colleges and universities to return to traditional operations, Johns Hopkins University and Georgetown University both reinstated masking requirements on Thursday, two of the first institutions of higher education in the nation to reverse course on COVID-19 protocols since the start of the year.
With cases rising on both campuses and in the Baltimore-Washington, DC, area – they are up 135% in the past two weeks – leaders at both universities decided to take a safe approach as the BA.2 variant spreads. Johns Hopkins also added back a twice-per-week testing mandate. More than 100 students at JHU had positive COVID-19 results in their return from Spring Break, and Georgetown saw 117 positives from its 3,000 tests conducted March 27-April 2.
“These circumstances present a challenge, but we have learned to adjust our mitigation measures to respond to changing conditions throughout the pandemic,” Dr. Ranit Mishori, Professor and Chief Public Health Officer at Georgetown, said in a statement. “Another adjustment is needed now to curb transmission on campus.”
The combined return of students from Spring Breaks and the rise of the stealth variant, which is now the dominant strain in the U.S. and has caused an increase in COVID-19 cases in 27 states and the District of Columbia, is causing some concern for colleges, which are stretched thin on isolation spaces and are weary from two years of shifting strategies. The silver lining is that most students have not experienced serious short-term outcomes from the virus, and the majority of faculty as these institutions have received at least their first two scheduled vaccine doses.
“Thankfully, with the vast majority of our community up to date on vaccination, we are not seeing cases involving severe illness,” Mishori said. Kevin Shollenberger, Vice Provost for Student Health and Well-Being at Johns Hopkins agreed, saying, “Many students who tested positive are asymptomatic, and the rest are experiencing only mild symptoms.”
Still, both institutions know any further outbreak could put those with comorbidities at risk, in residence halls and gathering spaces and in their urban communities. So, Johns Hopkins is planning to keep testing going through April 22 and will maintain mask protocols for the foreseeable future in common areas, in addition to its current policy requiring them in classes. It is also considering its options for a potentially complicated return of quarantine and isolation.
“In order to effectively manage our inventory of off-campus isolation housing, we may also adopt isolation-in-place protocols,” Shollenberger said. “We would prioritize off-campus isolation housing for residential students most in need, such as those with medical conditions that place them at higher risk from COVID; those who are experiencing more serious presentations of COVID; or those whose living arrangements may make it difficult to isolate, such as students living in doubles as opposed to suites with individual bedrooms.”
Georgetown’s isolation capacity at a nearby hotel is already full and the university is seeking additional space. “Residential students who test positive may need to share a hotel room or isolate in their campus residence, which means that COVID-positive and negative students may need to be housed together in the same room or apartment,” Mishori said.
Another school where isolation space is tight and that is putting masks back on temporarily is Barnard College at Columbia University in New York. It has seen close to a 4% positivity rate in recent reporting. Students must put face coverings on in dining spaces, at events, in its library and in classrooms.
“This disease continues to behave unpredictably,” Dr. Marina Catallozzi, Vice President of Health & Wellness and Chief Health Officer, said in a statement to the Barnard community. “While rates of hospitalization for COVID-19 are the lowest they have been since the pandemic started, we are seeing an increase in symptomatic cases of COVID-19, in individuals testing positive for COVID-19 via self-administered home antigen testing and through our testing program.”
Catallozzi pressed the importance of acquiring antigen tests and treatment options quickly and getting vaccinated, and that includes a first booster shot. “Please get it ASAP,” she said.
While there are some institutions like San Francisco State University that have vowed to maintain masking requirements through the end of the semester, there are hundreds of others that have removed them over the past two months as COVID cases waned. Leaders at those institutions, however, have indicated to students that if conditions change, they may see a return of masks and testing.
Many universities have also ended their vaccination requirements while still encouraging populations to get them. The University of Rochester, citing a decision made by the state of New York to halt the mandate for health care workers, has opted to remove the booster requirement for its entire community though it still requires students get their primary doses of COVID vaccines..
“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve modified or changed guidance as we learn more about the science of COVID, where there are new discoveries and insights almost daily,” the university said in a statement. “Every decision we’ve made or the policy we’ve established has been made with the health and safety of everyone in our community as the single most important consideration.”