COVID Cases Surge as Students Return to Campus

As students trickled into Portland for Paideia and the spring semester began, COVID-19 cases soared to all-time highs within Reed’s campus, with 28 new cases reported between January 14 and January 21 and 27 new cases between January 21 and January 28. As the Omicron variant surges across the United States, individuals and communities are beginning to adapt their responses to cope with new threats of infection.

Madison Riethman, the COVID-19 Response Coordinator & Health Project Manager for Reed, discussed Omicron’s rise and quelling the virus’s spread, writing, “There are no shiny new tools in our COVID Response ‘toolbox’ for us to put to use; instead, we continue to rely on things that we know work, […] such as universal mask requirements, surveillance testing, or rigorous contact tracing and quarantines. Others are ‘beefed up’ versions of things we’re already doing— like adding booster vaccination doses for greater protection.”

Riethman also stressed the importance of acknowledging that COVID’s impacts on the broader communities of Portland, Oregon, and the country will ripple into Reed. As such, Reed’s elevated case counts are unsurprising, given that the Omicron surge has been the largest in the COVID-19 pandemic thus far. Although cases within Reed have been relatively high, “Reed’s COVID activity has remained drastically lower than the COVID activity seen in the general community. During the first week of the semester, Reed’s case rate was about 30% lower than the case rate in the state of Oregon as a whole. During the same period, Reed’s COVID test positivity (percent of tests that result positive) was 2.1%, compared to over 20% at the county, state, and national levels”, Riethman says.

As COVID activity develops within the larger Portland community, the COVID response team anticipates on-campus cases to be impacted. Riethman predicts case activity, writing, “As our students, staff, and faculty engage with activities outside of Reed campus, it’s impossible for us to create an impermeable bubble of safety– even though we are fortunate enough to have additional resources on campus that protect us further. We expect to see a higher number of cases as community members return to Reed following holiday travel, gathering, and activities, but ultimately, the uptrend in cases at Reed is driven by the uptrend in cases across the country.”

The rise in cases requires the COVID response team to adapt and shift systems to ensure that every aspect of COVID prevention and management is up to par. Riethman explains that although they are not receiving as many resources from public health services due to the rise in cases, Reed has been able to safely respond to every case on campus, inclusive of testing, contact tracing, isolation, and medical support. Riethman further acknowledged the strain that the Omicron surge has placed on the team, writing, “We have made adjustments to our processes to keep up with higher case volume, such as the use of digital contact tracing notifications, rather than individual phone calls, we will continue to carry out these important follow up steps to limit the impact COVID has on campus.”

Efforts to maintain safety for all individuals in the Reed community, such as testing, contact tracing, and isolation, have been paramount to the COVID response team, as they emphasize the resources provided to prevent transmission. Surveillance testing has been readily available and encouraged on campus, the importance of which Riethman heavily stressed. “Among vaccinated, otherwise healthy individuals, COVID, particularly the Omicron variant, tends to present with mild to no symptoms— testing before and upon the return to campus allowed us to identify cases that may have otherwise gone undetected,” Riethman wrote. Once an individual tests positive, members of the HCC or HR speak with them about their activities over the period that they may have been transmitting the virus. Close contacts are then notified and are required to quarantine for five days if they have not received all of their COVID vaccinations, including a booster shot. Regardless of vaccination status, close contacts are required to test five days after exposure.

Individuals who test positive for COVID-19 are asked to isolate to prevent community transmission. According to Riethman, “Reed has reserved 15 beds in Canyon House, Farm House, and the RCAs […]. When there is a high level of COVID activity on campus, there may be more cases on campus than isolation spaces available. During these times, we will prioritize isolation space for students with roommates or whose normal housing situation makes it difficult for them to effectively isolate themselves away from others. In some situations, students may be asked to isolate themselves in their regular residence hall room or apartment for part or all of their isolation period. These students are given specific instructions on safely completing their isolation period in their regular rooms, and still receive the same support from the college, including meal delivery and regular check-ins from the HCC and Residence Life.”

Despite the measures in place to prevent the transmission of the virus, questions arise on whether classes are set to return online, considering that few other colleges have adopted online instruction and some of the classes at Reed have also gone online. Riethman addressed this, writing, “Every class at Reed is unique and, as such, the Risk Assessment Group is supporting individual faculty in making decisions about virtual versus. in-person learning that makes the most sense for the specific class. Historically, our classrooms have been a very safe place— to date, we have not identified any transmission of COVID occurring in classes. […] We encourage all faculty to be prepared to offer alternatives to students who are out due to illness, isolation, or quarantine, and support instructors in taking a class online when they or a high number of students must stay home.”

Ultimately, Riethman emphasized the necessity of rising to the individual responsibility that comes with living amidst a pandemic. “Now more than ever, we ask folks to educate themselves using reliable sources and remain diligent about good disease prevention measures,” Riethman wrote. As COVID cases rise, and with the onset of Omicron, Riethman highlights the role that each member of the community plays in keeping the Reed community safe, encouraging individuals to remain vigilant and aware of the implications of their actions in the era of the Omicron variant.

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