Penn State Announces Spring Semester Classes To Begin In Person Amid Omicron Concerns | Coronavirus

Despite the COVID outbreak across the country and with health experts warning of difficult weeks ahead, Penn State announced Thursday night that it will begin the spring semester in person, as scheduled, because it believes it can. do it “safely but with care”.

Still, according to the university, conditions around University Park and Commonwealth campuses will continue to be closely watched – and, if necessary, those plans could be changed. Additional security protocols could also be announced in the coming weeks.

Spring semester classes start January 10.

“Our students, faculty and staff have a very high vaccination rate, we test unvaccinated ones weekly and continue to require face masks to be worn indoors,” Penn President said. State, Eric Barron, in a written statement. “With these measures in place, along with the hospitalization data and what we are learning about omicron, we believe we can safely, but carefully, return to classes and activities on campus as planned.”

The Penn State announcement came about seven hours after the University of Pittsburgh said its first two and a half weeks of classes would be held at bay due to the spread of the omicron variant. Two weeks ago, students and families at UAP were told to expect an announcement on December 30 – then they waited impatiently until officials announced their decision just before 8 p.m.

In a press release, Penn State explained that it is monitoring local hospital capacity as well as the spread of the omicron variant locally, state and nationally. But, over the past week, COVID-19 has seen record cases across the board.

Pennsylvania set a record Thursday with 19,436 daily new positives, breaking Wednesday’s record set of 1,916 cases, an increase of nearly 11%. Over the past week, Center County also recorded its second and third single-day case totals since the start of the pandemic – with 234 and 255 cases, respectively – finishing behind the record 302 cases. , established on December 11, 2020.

Nationally, the numbers did not fare any better. Based on seven-day moving averages, Reuters news outlet confirmed on Thursday that the United States set a new record for average daily cases with more than 290,000. (Exactly one month ago, the daily total stood at about 80,000.)

“We’re going to see the number of cases in this country increase so dramatically that we’re going to have a hard time sustaining daily life,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, told MSNBC.

Based on advice from Penn State’s COVID-19 Operations Control Center, Penn State management has determined that the conditions do not warrant a switch to distance learning. In an email, a spokesperson for the university said no official would be available to speak to the media on Thursday evening due to the university’s winter recess.

Last fall, without the vaccine, Penn State was forced to temporarily switch to distance learning as weekly campus cases approached 700. Last fall, with a reported vaccination rate of 89.8 %, there have never been more than 200 weekly cases. Still, the status of Center County’s only hospital, Mount Nittany Medical Center, remained a serious concern.

Although hospitalizations gradually declined over the past week, to 43 COVID patients on Thursday from an average of 57 this month, hospital officials continued to call on community members to get vaccinated and wear protective clothing. masks – especially since the increase in hospitalizations is usually several weeks behind the increase in cases.

“The omicron variant is two to three times more transmissible than the delta variant,” said Dr Upendra Thaker, chief medical officer of Mount Nittany Medical Center, in a written statement. “There are also a high number of people who are asymptomatic or showing minimal symptoms, which creates a perfect storm to spread the virus without knowing it. We predict an even bigger increase in cases after the holidays with more hospitalizations to follow. . “

Unlike the fall semester, COVID testing for students arriving on campus does not appear to be required for the spring. However, Penn State officials are encouraging him.

Students or employees can currently order up to 12 free Vault Health test kits by mail. And on move-in weekend, Jan. 7-9, the White Building will be open for walk-in testing at University Park.

“I want to stress that students on all campuses can take steps now to order a test and complete it next week to find out about their health before returning to a campus,” said Kelly Wolgast, director of the center. of the university’s COVID-19 operations control. .

Wolgast also said Penn State plans to follow the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which calls for isolation and quarantine protocols to be cut in half to five days. A number of states like Michigan have said they will not follow the CDC’s relaxed advice, which CNN says surprised a number of health officials.

Wolgast said the university has “ample quarantine and isolation space for students on campus.”

Overall, Penn State ended its announcement on Thursday by pitching its decision as being similar to others in the Big Ten.

“Although conditions vary by region and community, at present Penn State’s action is consistent with that of about half of its Big Ten peers,” the university announcement says. .

For more information on Penn State’s response to the pandemic, visit virusinfo.psu.edu.

CDT reporter Matt Hymowitz, Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.