Omicron variant detected at Yale, University moves to grab-and-go dining but proceeds with in-person exams
The University has decided to continue administering exams in person, despite the detection of the Omicron variant and increased demand for on-campus isolation housing that has caused the University to double-bunk students in quarantine.
Regina Sung, Photo Editor
Despite the detection of the Omicron COVID-19 variant within the Yale community and increased demand for isolation housing, the University currently has no plans to send students home from campus early or to move final exams online, several administrators said Wednesday.
As Yale continues to see a post-Thanksgiving surge of COVID-19 cases, with 50 positive cases in the seven-day period between Dec. 7 and 13, Yale administrators have now confirmed that the Omicron variant is on campus. While other universities, including Columbia, Princeton, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, have moved final exams online due to COVID-19 surges and the rising Omicron variant, Yale has no plans to do so for its final exams, which began on Dec. 16.
“Omicron has been detected within the Yale Community, as it has been in the city and state, but the delta variant is still dominant,” Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd wrote in a Wednesday email to the News. “At this point, I am very hopeful that Yale College students will be able to finish the semester in person, continuing to follow careful precautions as they have throughout the fall.”
Boyd announced in a Dec. 16 email to students that residential college dining halls, Commons, the Elm and the Bow-Wow would transition to grab-and-go meal service only for the remainder of the semester, beginning Thursday evening.
Students also received an email Wednesday afternoon from Madeleine Wilson, the director of the Yale COVID-19 Testing and Tracing Program, announcing that students must receive a COVID-19 test within 24 to 48 hours of their return to campus in January, and continue the current twice-weekly testing schedule for the first two weeks of the spring semester.
“Although Yale College’s infection rates are low, this change is meant to keep them low at a time when other college campuses are reporting sharp increases, in some cases prompting them to switch to remote instruction,” Boyd wrote in the Dec. 16 email. “Yale’s public health advisers expect Yale College students to finish the semester in person while following existing precautions and making adjustments like this one as necessary.”
On Dec. 16, Stanford announced that instruction would be remote for the first two weeks of its winter quarter, which begins on Jan. 3.
The first case of the Omicron variant in Connecticut was reported in Hartford County on Dec. 4. On Dec. 15, Dean of the Yale School of Public Health Sten Vermund said that “a half dozen” cases have been detected in Yale New Haven Hospital, which does not test samples from the Yale community. Boyd did not provide details on the number of cases detected within the Yale community.
But Vermund emphasized that Connecticut was not an epicenter for the Omicron variant, explaining that the variant had already been detected in over 30 states. Because the Omicron variant is particularly infectious, he explained, it has a “competitive advantage” over other variants of the virus and is likely to displace them in the next few months.
“There’s no question that Omicron has arrived,” Vermund said. “I don’t think we’re particularly alarmed in the sense that Delta is still the dominant variant and is likely to be so for the next month or so. At the same time, with Omicron being more infectious, we are advising caution during travel home for the holidays and we are likely to be keen to see people tested upon their return.”
The University announced a shift from “green” to “yellow” COVID-19 alert level on Dec. 1, indicating “low to moderate risk” of COVID-19 on campus.
The days following the shift to yellow risk level saw a spike in on-campus COVID-19 cases, with 98 positive tests among students, faculty and staff in the seven-day period ending on Dec. 3.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes to orange in the not-too distant future, just looking at the trajectory of what’s been happening with COVID in our community,” said Richard Martinello, medical director of infection prevention at Yale New Haven Health and a member of the public health committee which advises University COVID-19 Coordinator Stephanie Spangler.
If there is a surge upon students’ return to campus following winter break, Vermund said, the University is likely to further increase requirements for student COVID-19 testing.
Undergraduate COVID-19 testing requirements were already increased from once to twice weekly on Dec. 6, after a spike in positive tests on campus that University officials attributed to students traveling home from Thanksgiving break.
“We’ve been down this path before,” Vermund said. “In any case, while cases are certainly something we’d like to avoid and an inconvenience, the good news is with a virtually fully vaccinated community, serious disease is unlikely.”
For this reason, Vermund explained that he was not concerned about how hospital capacity in New Haven would affect Yale students, adding that “nearly all” patients hospitalized for COVID-19 are unvaccinated.
Yale New Haven Hospital temporarily extended its emergency room to the hospital parking lot this week as a result of increased patient volumes and extended duration of patient stays. New Haven County entered “severe” risk level for COVID-19 on Dec. 14, according to the Covid ActNow Risk & Vaccine Tracker.
Vermund said that student isolation housing capacity was likely to become “the topic of review over the next couple of weeks.”
Seventy-one percent of isolation housing is currently available, according to the University COVID-19 dashboard. That number has remained stagnant since at least Dec. 5 despite fluctuating COVID-19 cases. Boyd did not comment on why it has remained unchanged.
Students in isolation housing are currently living with roommates, which Vermund attributed to the fact that vaccinated students are both less infectious and less likely to get seriously ill.
“The roommates are random,” said Elven Shum ’24, who left isolation housing this weekend. “They’re kind of loosely based on when you first started showing symptoms, as I understand. You don’t know them, so you have to work the whole ten days out with this person you don’t really know.”
Although Shum said that he was assigned a roommate upon his arrival in isolation housing, he said that many students were informed that they would be receiving a roommate midway through their stay in isolation housing.
Some of the suites in Arnold Hall, where students who test positive are currently housed, have had two sets of bunk beds added to their common rooms, Shum said, speculating that the University might start housing people in these common rooms once bedrooms in Arnold Hall reach capacity.
On Nov. 3, Boyd announced that McClellan Hall, which had previously served as additional isolation housing, would return to its previous status as mixed-gender student housing, leaving Arnold Hall as the sole venue for those in COVID-19 isolation.
Shum said that there would likely be enough space in Arnold Hall to house students who test positive unless there is a drastic spike in COVID-19 cases on campus.
To avoid the risk of cases increasing, Martinello emphasized the importance of students receiving booster shots to their vaccines.
“That is something that many of the students may wish to do after finals, but it is going to be really important,” Martinello said. “With the Omicron variant, we’re seeing that it does take that booster vaccination to make sure that one is well protected against it.”
Although there is currently no mandate in place for students to receive booster shots, Martinello said that there is a possibility of the shot becoming mandatory in the future. Brown and Princeton universities have already instituted booster mandates.
Boyd also advised that students continue to abide by the twice-weekly testing requirement until they leave campus, and added that students could exceed the testing requirements.
“Anyone wanting to take an extra test on the day of departure is welcome to do so — it’s a good extra layer of protection for their families and friends at home,” Boyd wrote.
Boyd added that students should continue to wear masks and stay socially distanced at home until they receive their negative test results.
Although Vermund reiterated the importance of students continuing to follow public health guidelines, in particular wearing masks and avoiding large groups, he emphasized that vaccinated students should not fear becoming seriously ill from the virus.
“I do see tremendous student anxiety,” Vermund said. “And it really hurts me because people have to understand that if they have been fully vaccinated, and especially if they’ve been able to be boosted, their risk of serious disease is close to nil.”
Yale’s winter recess will officially begin at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 22, and classes will resume on Jan. 18.
Update, Dec. 16: This story has been updated to include new communications to students from Yale administrators.