Universities on high alert as omicron variant spreads


As Pitt faculty, staff and students leave campus for winter break, the news of other universities limiting in-person activities — including final exams — because of increasing COVID-19 cases has left many with questions and rising anxiety.

Pitt’s infection numbers have remained relatively low throughout the semester. Since Oct. 5, when Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office first started reporting case numbers this semester, there have been 411 student cases on the Oakland campus and 235 employees, along with 138 students on the regional campuses and 23 employees.

In comparison, Cornell University, which shut down its Ithaca campus on Dec. 14 and moved finals online, had more than 900 cases in just four days between Dec. 7 and 13. Most of the cases were among vaccinated students who contracted the omicron variant. New York University, Georgetown and Princeton also moved finals online.

In its weekly message on Dec. 16, the CMRO said Pitt is closely monitoring the developing situation regarding the spread of the omicron variant and will announce any new mitigation efforts, if needed, as soon as possible.

“Omicron has once again changed the situation and we must remain vigilant,” the message said. “We have adapted well as a Pitt community to changing virus conditions throughout 2021, which is something to be proud of. Adapting remains the status quo, for now.

“We will communicate any additional mitigation measures you should take as needed, based on new data about the omicron variant and strategies for campus safety,” the email continued. “If it is determined that additional mitigation measures are needed for a safe return to campus in January, we will communicate those measures to you as soon as possible. So please continue to check your email and other Pitt channels during Winter Recess for any updates.”

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher echoed these sentiments in an email this morning: "Everyone should be prepared for possible adjustments to our return-to-campus plans as the pandemic and the risks associated with it continue to evolve."

In November, Pitt announced that all faculty, staff and students must be vaccinated or have a qualified exemption. The mandate was supposed to be enforced starting Dec. 6, but a University spokesman said that through the month of December, “we will continue our process of working with those who wish to come into compliance. Final determinations regarding policy compliance, including employee status and student disenrollment, will be made in early January. We will report compliance numbers at that time.”

When Pitt announced the vaccine mandate in early November, more than 90 percent of the University community had already been vaccinated. Approximately 2,250 students, 240 faculty and 700 staff had not disclosed their vaccination status or sought an exemption. Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said last week that those numbers have dropped but did not give any specifics.

Since vaccines became available on campus, Pitt has provided 26,600 doses to the University community and its neighbors. The Pitt CoVax Vaccination Center at Nordenberg Hall will stay open through the next academic year.

A pop-up clinic was held Dec. 16 at Petersen Events Center and another one is planned for Jan. 12. See details here.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 724-244-4042.


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