According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Omicron variant of COVID-19 and its subsequent subvariants have been the predominant strain of COVID-19 in the U.S. for the past year. In December 2021, the Omicron strain (BA.1) caused nearly one million cases within the U.S. BA.5, a subvariant of Omicron, became the dominant virus strain in the U.S. through 2022 and was replaced in November with the BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 subvariants. Since the beginning of 2023, a new Omicron subvariant known as XBB.1.5 has been on the rise.
Scientists are still working to learn more about the XBB.1.5 subvariant, but they believe it is the most transmissible strain of the virus to date. The original strain of Omicron was also more transmissible than the Delta variant, the dominant strain in the later half of 2021. New research suggests that some of the 30 mutations on the virus’ spike protein may be the cause of increased infectivity. The severities of the new subvariants are still being determined, but the original strain of Omicron was less severe than previous strains, including the Delta variant. However, even with lower severity, the original strain of Omicron caused an increase in hospitalizations and deaths due to large surges in cases.
The CDC has continued to emphasize vaccination as an effective way to prevent severe infection, hospitalization and death. Some breakthrough infections may occur, but the CDC is encouraging the public to stay up to date with the latest vaccinations. In 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech bivalent boosters for everyone ages six months and older. These boosters are known to be effective against the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, along with the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants. However, experts are still determining the efficacy of this booster against the latest Omicron subvariants. In addition to the XBB.1.5 Omicron variant on the rise, scientists are also investigating the BF.7, XBB, BN.1, BF.11 and other Omicron subvariants.
With a variety of COVID-19 strains on the rise and the risk of increased infections as classes resume, there may be concerns about safety on campus. The Technique recently interviewed Dr. Benjamin Holton, director of Stamps Health Services, to learn more about the state of COVID-19 cases on campus.
“There have been relatively low levels of COVID activity during the fall semester. The typical pattern [is] of a peak in the early semester and [then] a flatline in terms of cases (one-two cases at Stamps per day),” Holton said.
He explained that Stamps cases reflected trends around campus, specifically when surveillance testing was available prior to this past fall, and that the wastewater testing showed low COVID-19 levels. He also added that there was an uptick in cases from wastewater testing a week after Thanksgiving. Stamps reflected this trend three weeks after Thanksgiving, as there were 18 cases weekly instead of the average of six to seven cases a week. The week before classes began for the Spring 2023 semester, Stamps had nine positive cases and eight during the first week of classes. He said that he expects “a bump [in cases] with students coming back, similar to what is happening in the [greater Atlanta] community.”
Holton also discussed the Omicron subvariants, emphasizing that the “XBB1.5 subvariant is predominant in the Northeast U.S. and is becoming the dominant subvariant.”
He expressed confidence in the fact that “students don’t get severely sick from COVID-19” which reflects the data that “symptoms don’t seem to be worse.”
Holton made recommendations for students, including that vaccinations are important. The “primary series (first two shots) and the bivalent booster (… [which] everyone is eligible for that if it’s two months after your last COVID vaccine) reduces severity of illness and prevents hospitalization and death.”
He also encourages wearing a mask if individuals are in high risk situations such as “crowded places that are poorly ventilated and lots of people close together and there is not a lot of ventilation (bar, dance venue, party).”
He also recommended taking extra precautions if you have had exposure while traveling, encouraging students to “wear a mask in a space like an airport and public transportation. If you’re around friends and they are careful about avoiding high risk situations, then it’s safe to gather without a mask.”
Holton listed other ways to stay safe. “[This includes] washing hands when out and about, keeping hands away from face, avoiding touching other people’s faces, staying home if you’re sick, protecting others and minimizing transmissions,” Holton said.
He closed by saying that “COVID is still around and still a threat. Some people are still getting ill and still dying. When COVID first started, deaths were skewed to elderly. Then eventually it shifted to those in their 50s and 60s. And skewed back to elderly now. Most of us are not in that high risk community, but there are faculty and staff who are older. We can’t just ignore COVID but don’t need to live in fear of it.”
Holton added that Stamps has changed their primary care operations and returned to more normal pre-COVID operations, no longer having the telemedicine and respiratory/non-respiratory breakdown. He explained that students can still sign-up for COVID tests. For more information, visit health.gatech.edu.
The Technique also spoke to third-year PUBP Derin Aladesanmi, a student who currently serves as chair of the Student Government Association’s (SGA) Public Health Committee and as president of the Public Health Student Association. She discussed the rise in COVID cases across the country, explaining that “new variants and rising cases are always a cause for concern. This is especially true for on-campus life, where students are often in close quarters and frequently interact with many different groups of people.”
Aladesanmi emphasized the same mitigation strategies that Holton mentioned, such as “wearing masks, washing hands often and staying home [when] sick.”
She encouraged students to remain calm, however, saying that she tries “to avoid outrightly panicking or giving into fear-mongering as they never really help people stay safe,” and saying that she “feels okay about safety on campus,” yet is “cognizant that the pandemic is not over.”
Aladesanmi also discussed the steps that SGA has taken to support students’ health and well-being amidst COVID, including the PPE distribution project that she helped lead on campus as a major initiative.
“We packaged and passed out a few hundred PPE kits full of hand sanitizer and masks (cloth and disposal). We also advocated for the reinstatement of COVID-19 mitigation policies and housing, dining and testing resources, as first-years and those living in communal-style housing were disproportionately at risk of contracting COVID-19,” Aladesanmi said. “Ultimately, we always want to engage with the student body and make sure their needs are being addressed as comprehensively as possible.”
Finally, Aladesanmi discussed feeling burnout from the effects of the pandemic.
“It is 100% valid to feel burnout due to the pandemic and even the general stressors of being a student,” Aladesanmi said.
She added that “if you are struggling please ask for help, whether that be from a friend, classmate, professor or CARE. The two phrases I say to encourage myself are ‘just take things a day at a time’ and ‘life is a journey, not a destination.’ They always remind me to celebrate every win I have, big or small, and to take as much joy out of each positive moment as I can.”
Students can direct any feedback or questions about SGA’s role in supporting student well-being by contacting [email protected].
While COVID-19 cases are steadily on the rise across the U.S., taking basic precautionary steps will help reduce the spread.
As the world transitions into an almost post-COVID era, recognizing the ways in which normalcy can be built into daily lives will be important to health and welfare of communities.
Experts continue to emphasize the need to stay up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccinations and masking-up as necessary. To learn more about COVID-19 and the resources available, visit cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/.