NU to start in-person instruction Jan. 18 after record number of COVID-19 cases


Angeli Mittal/Daily Senior Staffer

Panelists at the Return to Campus Discussion webinar discussed the transition from the “stabilization period” of Wildcat Wellness to the resumption of in-person instruction and activities.

Angeli Mittal, Photo Editor

While about 10% of Northwestern undergraduate students have tested positive for COVID-19 since December, the University still feels prepared to resume in-person classes and activities Jan. 18, Vice President for Operations Luke Figora said at the Return to Campus Discussion Series webinar Tuesday.

According to Feinberg Prof. Richard D’Aquila, the omicron variant is the second-most contagious virus worldwide — after the measles — which makes it much more infectious than any of the earlier COVID-19 variants. 

While it may have taken 30 minutes of exposure to contract COVID-19 in March 2020, with the emergence of more infectious variants, it can take just a few minutes to contract the virus, D’Aquila said. 

University masking policy

D’Aquila said universal masking may be more important now more than ever, protecting those with weakened immune systems and younger populations who are also prone to hospitalization. The average age of hospitalized COVID-19 patients is now in the 30s, D’Aquila said.

However, Provost Kathleen Hagerty said faculty members are not required to wear masks when lecturing from a large distance from students.

D’Aquila recommends upgrading from cloth masks to surgical masks or respirators such as KF94s, KN95s and N95s. He also said individuals can layer a cloth mask over a surgical mask to create a more tight fit and improve performance. 

“Different people prefer different types of masks, so wear what’s comfortable as long as it’s high quality and fits tightly,” D’Aquila said.

NU will update its indoor masking policy to require at least a surgical mask in shared campus environments, Figora said. These masks are available throughout campus at the entrances of buildings. 

The University plans to provide information about how students, faculty and staff can acquire KN95s later this week.

Vaccination at NU

Figora said about 98.5% of individuals at NU are vaccinated. However, a primary vaccination series is not enough to prevent infection against the omicron variant, D’Aquila said. He added that booster shots can decrease infection risk from this variant by about 50%. 

NU requires students, faculty and staff to get a booster shot to partake in on-campus activities, requiring individuals to submit booster shot documentation 30 days after being eligible or by Jan. 30, whichever comes later. Over 10,000 people have provided booster information thus far, Figora said. 

In accordance with Evanston’s and Chicago’s vaccination requirement to enter certain facilities, the University modified its Symptom Tracker to allow NU members to show proof of vaccination through the app.

In-person and at-home testing

Vice President for Student Affairs Julie Payne-Kirchmeier said the University’s Wildcat Wellness policies have improved, comparing last year’s grab-and-go dining from residential lobbies to this quarter’s recreational activities continuing to take place. 

She said 88% of undergraduates are back on campus and have participated in the first week of in-person testing. The remaining 12% of students are anticipated to return this week or early next week.

Figora said the University has administered about 23,000 COVID-19 tests to approximately 12,000 students over the last 10 days. Last week, the University reported the highest number of new COVID-19 positive cases it has ever reported in a single week. The vast majority of people who test positive experience mild or no symptoms, he said.

The University now offers a new walk-in entrance at the Donald P. Jacobs Center for symptomatic individuals. The Jacobs Center will be open for extended hours until Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and will resume normal hours Jan. 18. NU students, faculty and staff can also schedule testing appointments between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. every day through Northwestern Medicine’s Evanston Immediate Care Center on Sherman Ave.

The University has distributed over half a million free at-home tests to the NU community. Though distribution has paused this week to focus on campus testing, Figora said it will resume giving out tests next week.

Quarantine and isolation housing

Payne-Kirchmeier said Quarantine and Isolation Housing is one of the University’s best mitigation strategies to reduce spread within on-campus populations. She said the University enhanced the Counseling and Psychological Services appointment process, with same-day virtual appointments available, adding that Student Assistance and Support Services provides constant connection with many students across campus to provide support.

Students are permitted to leave isolation on the fifth day if they receive a negative rapid antigen test result. While Payne-Kirchmeier said this is in alignment with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, national recommendations don’t require antigen testing as a part of the shortened isolation protocol.

Resuming in-person activities

D’Aquila said the Chicago area is starting to see a flattening of positive cases, though hospitalizations are lagging behind the positivity rate. He said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the next few weeks.

The hope, he said, is that because the omicron variant is widespread, there will be a period of natural and broader immunity for many people against reinfection from omicron and other variants.

“What we’ve seen around the world… is what’s called an ice-pick epidemic curve by the CDC — it goes up really fast, but that means it comes down really fast,” D’Aquila said. “I’m hopeful that over the next couple of weeks, test positivity will go down, which will have an immediate impact on the campus.”

Hagerty said NU is committed to resuming in-person instruction and that there is no evidence of transmission in the classroom when everyone wears a mask and has received vaccinations and booster shots. 

“We’re in a better position on campus than most places around the world because of all these layered mitigation strategies,” D’Aquila said. “Because of all those layers, I’d rather be on the NU campus than anywhere else.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misattributed quotes from Provost Kathleen Hagerty. The Daily regrets the error.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @amittal27

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