By Ben Peters
Athens NEWS Associate Editor
Less than half of Ohio University’s fall enrollees may be immunized against COVID-19 by the semester’s start — just as the virus’ delta variant is causing spikes in COVID cases in unvaccinated pockets across the country.
The delta variant, which is both more infectious and possibly more virulent than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, has become the primary cause of COVID-19 infections in the United States, according to the CDC.
Earlier this month, the university estimated that only 30% of students were fully vaccinated against the virus, although officials suggested that figure is likely an undercount since most students have not yet reported their immunization status.
Dr. Gillian Ice, special assistant to OU President Hugh Sherman for public health operations, said that she expects between 40% and 50% of students to be immunized when fall semester begins at the end of August. She based the prediction on in-house student data as well as state and national trends in vaccination rates among young people, which tend to be lower than among older people.
“There are many reasons for this, of course, but a significant factor is the low perceived risks related to COVID among the college age group, as well as general vaccine hesitancy in the population,” Ice said in an email. “We are working on a number of efforts to work to increase the rate of vaccination among students on all of our campuses.”
While young people are much less likely to die from the virus than their elders, they can still develop complications and experience long-lasting and debilitating symptoms.
To encourage vaccination among students, the university will allow those who provide proof of having received their shots to forego mandatory testing. Unvaccinated students (along with employees) must be tested weekly to maintain access to university facilities. Anyone who doesn’t report their status will be automatically filed into the weekly testing group.
Weekly and twice-weekly surveillance testing for students during the spring 2021 semester proved highly effective at preventing rapid spread of the virus among the student population, according to Athens City County Health Department Health Commissioner Dr. James Gaskell.
In fall 2020, when campus testing protocols were less rigorous, spread among students was rampant, leading to three residence halls being ordered into quarantine by the health department. Despite the virus’ spread in clusters on campus, county officials said it wasn’t believed to be transmitted from the student population to the public.
Frequent testing in the spring may have also affected students’ behavior, Gaskell said, causing some to turn down mass gatherings to avoid becoming quarantined.
But the pandemic landscape has changed quite a bit since the spring. The country has more or less reopened with activity returning close to pre-pandemic levels. Vaccination rates have stalled statewide, with Athens County immunizing just over 40% of residents as of Friday. And new variants of the virus have surfaced, including the highly transmissible delta, which is primarily affecting regions with low vaccination rates.
The delta variant could rapidly spread in clusters of unvaccinated students in the fall, according to Winfried Just, an OU mathematics professor who studies the transmissibility of infectious diseases.
While OU had no immediate plans to require immunization for students, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Wednesday signed a piece of legislation that prevents universities from mandating vaccines that aren’t fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The COVID-19 vaccines currently used in the U.S. are available under emergency authorization by the FDA following human trials that deemed them safe and effective.
“We know that, together, we could prevent nearly all sickness and quarantine on our campuses if most of our University community were vaccinated,” university spokesperson Carly Leatherwood said in a statement.
“We strongly encourage students, faculty, and staff to get vaccinated to help prevent spread of disease on campus and in the communities where our campuses are located. We also urge everyone to select a testing pathway as soon as possible.”