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COVID cases spike at U of I. Masks are now ‘strongly recommended’ but not mandated in most settings on campus.

Chicago Tribune 9/1/2022 Angie Leventis Lourgos, Chicago Tribune
People walk on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus on Dec. 9, 2020. © Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS People walk on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus on Dec. 9, 2020.

As the fall semester gets underway, COVID-19 cases are surging at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has “strongly recommended” masking to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus but isn’t mandating face coverings in most indoor settings.

Nearly a quarter of 1,439 tests reported on Tuesday were positive for the virus, with about 26% of undergraduate students and about 23% of graduate students who were tested having contracted the virus, according to university data.

That day, 326 new cases were reported at the university of more than 50,000 students, who began classes Aug. 22. In the last week, just over 1,000 new cases were reported, with a positivity rate of 21%.

The positivity rates in late August were much higher than other months throughout the pandemic, though testing was down compared with previous months.

Allison Copenbarger Vance, a university spokeswoman, said all faculty, staff and students are required to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19, and those who are not must test for the virus once a week.

She said the current positivity rate shouldn’t be compared or interpreted as equal to positivity rates earlier in the pandemic, because most individuals getting tested now either have COVID symptoms or are required to get tested because they’re unvaccinated.

“This does not accurately represent our entire population, which skews the percentage,” she said.

The outbreak even prevented the iconic Marching Illini band from performing on the field at Saturday’s Fighting Illini football game against the University of Wyoming Cowboys.

“We want you to know that at the game, the Marching Illini will play in the stands instead of on the field,” said Barry Houser, director of the Marching Illini, on the band’s website before the game. “Several members of the band have tested positive for COVID-19 and we have not been able to practice this week with a full roster of members. We do not want to perform the formations our fans have come to know and love if we can’t deliver them to the highest standard.”

The director’s message noted that the positive cases in the marching band were either mild or asymptomatic.

The university recently announced that masks are “strongly recommended” in classrooms and during in-person class time, though face coverings won’t be required except in health care settings like COVID-19 testing sites and the student health center.

“University guidance is that face coverings can be recommended but not required for the next several weeks, based on current local COVID-19 levels and (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance,” the university’s policy states. “This is a very fluid situation and as has been our practice, we will adjust as conditions change. Wearing a face covering remains a personal choice. Please note that students and employees cannot be compelled to wear a face covering.”

The vast majority of the campus has been vaccinated against the virus, with 92% of undergraduates and faculty and 93% of graduate students inoculated against the virus, according to university statistics.

“Our high vaccination rate is a critical component to our COVID-19 approach, because we know that COVID-19 vaccinations provide great protection against severe symptoms,” Vance said. “This semester, the positive cases have been very mild or asymptomatic. And hospitalization numbers in the community have remained consistent.”

Infectious disease expert Dr. Robert Murphy said that when infection rates are this high “mask mandates make sense.”

“That’s a no-brainer,” said Murphy, executive director of Northwestern University’s Institute for Global Health and a professor of infectious diseases at the Feinberg School of Medicine. “The advice is for any institution or business to put mask mandates back in place during periods of high infection.”

He added that cities and states are unlikely to reinstate these kinds of pandemic requirements.

“Our public health system has been emasculated, primarily by the courts, but institutions have to take the lead at this point if they want to slow this pandemic down,” he said.

The summer wave of COVID-19 cases nationwide was largely fueled by highly infectious omicron subvariants of the coronavirus.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday authorized updated Pfizer and Moderna booster shots that target these subvariants. Pfizer’s booster shot is for individuals 12 and older; Moderna’s booster shot is for those aged 18 and up.

Both updated boosters protect against the original virus strain, as well as the “BA.4 and BA.5 lineages of the omicron variant (that) are currently causing most cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. and are predicted to circulate this fall and winter,” the FDA said in a news release.

Before the new boosters can be administered, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must recommend who should get the additional shot. A CDC advisory committee is expected to debate the matter on Thursday.

Nearly 30% of counties in the nation were experiencing high community levels of COVID-19 and almost 43% had medium levels of the virus, according to the CDC. However, overall case counts, deaths and hospital admissions were declining, the agency reported.

Most Chicago-area counties were at medium levels of COVID-19 as of Tuesday, whereas Champaign County had high levels of the virus, according to the CDC.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker lifted the statewide mask requirement for most indoor areas in late February.

Many other universities and colleges across Illinois began the semester with face coverings being optional in most indoor areas.

At Southern Illinois University in Carbondale “masks are still recommended but not required indoors, except in health care settings,” according to the university’s COVID-19 policies, which add that university officials “will continue to monitor the situation and adapt our plans as needed.”

Columbia College Chicago “will peg masking precautions on campus to a combination of the city’s risk level and the COVID-19 situation on campus,” according to the school’s fall COVID-19 precautions.

Columbia plans to require masks in indoor spaces if weekly campus case counts exceed 35 or Chicago is at a high COVID-19 risk level. If the risk level is medium or low, and weekly campus case counts exceed 10, masks would be required in classrooms and optional in other indoor settings. If weekly campus case counts are fewer than 10 and Chicago is at a low risk level, masks will generally be optional.

As of Aug. 15, masks are optional in most indoor places at Northwestern University, though face coverings remain mandatory in health care and medical facilities.

“While masking is not required in most spaces, the University recommends masking in areas where distancing is not possible when transmission levels are elevated,” the policy states, adding that “the University community is committed to respecting and supporting one another’s choices.”

Northern Illinois University requires masks in health care settings. Masking is also mandatory 10 days after an individual has been exposed to COVID-19 and, for those who test positive, five days after the isolation period.

“Faculty members can require masks be worn in their teaching spaces,” the university website states. “Huskies are also expected to wear masks at the request of individuals when meeting in the personal work or living spaces of those individuals.”

eleventis@chicagotribune.com

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