Yale moves to orange alert level, sees highest single-day COVID case count
The shift from yellow to orange alert level comes in response to rising case counts on campus and in the surrounding community as well as lingering uncertainty about the Omicron variant.
Jessie Cheung, Staff Photographer
The University on Sunday morning shifted its COVID-19 alert level from yellow to orange in response to rising COVID-19 rates in Yale and New Haven and continued uncertainty about the Omicron variant.
Administrators have yet to send a community-wide email announcing the shift. The last change in alert level took place on Dec. 1, when the University announced a switch from green to yellow. Yale has not seen an orange alert level – which connotes “moderate” risk – since Nov. 2020, when an outbreak among students triggered a quarantine for three residential colleges. This alert level change comes in a different context; nearly all students, faculty and staff are vaccinated, but the Omicron variant — which has been detected at Yale and New Haven — seems to be more transmissible than early COVID-19 variants.
“The decisions made recently regarding the alert level and related health and safety guidance, such as the move to remote examinations and grab and go dining and the requirement for boosters, have been associated, among other metrics, with continue increases in COVID-19 cases in New Haven and the state, a rise in regional hospitalizations, recent increases in student cases on our campus, and, especially, information, as well as uncertainties, about the Omicron variant of COVID-19,” University COVID-19 Coordinator Stephanie Spangler wrote in an email to the News.
According to the University’s COVID-19 data dashboard, there have been 139 positive cases in the seven-day period ending Dec. 17. Thirty-seven Yale affiliates tested positive on Dec. 17, with 11 of those coming from undergraduate students living on campus. This is the second time in three days the University has set a new record for single-day COVID-19 case counts.
Orange alert level, which denotes moderate risk, could trigger new restrictions to campus life. According to Yale’s general description of alert levels, the frequency of testing could increase for some populations, certain courses could be moved to “online only,” targeted quarantines could be enforced on campus locations with clusters of cases, visitors to campus could be further restricted and all travel is strongly discouraged.
Yale’s description of the orange alert level also states that instructional or non-instructional gatherings of any size are prohibited until transmission rates decrease, and that students in off-campus housing are restricted from campus, while students living on campus are restricted to campus. In the absence of a formal announcement from Yale, it is not yet clear if all of these restrictions will be put in place.
“I think that the important thing that students need to know is that the situation in the community has quickly changed,” said Richard Martinello, medical director of infection prevention at Yale New Haven Health and a member of the public health committee which advises Spangler. “There is really a vast amount of more COVID that’s being transmitted now than what we had seen even just a few short weeks ago. Going from yellow into orange I think really needs to send the message to students and staff that they need to really step up how they are being careful on protecting themselves.”
The move to orange comes one day after University officials announced that all final exams must be conducted online, allowing students to depart campus early. In an email sent to Yale College students, Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Lynn Cooley wrote that students are not required to leave campus early, but that officials wanted the option to be in place.
Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd told the News that although the shift to orange was intended to remind students of the importance of public health guidelines, she thought that students were already well-aware of the severity of the situation.
“In general, though, I don’t think the shift to orange will have much impact on undergraduate life over the next few days, since students are primarily focused on their exams, final projects, and getting ready to depart,” Boyd wrote.
The fall semester officially ends on Dec. 23.
Martinello said that it was “safe to assume” that the orange alert would remain in place through students’ return from winter break. He advised that students continue to follow COVID-19 precautions to prevent a spike of the virus when classes resume on Jan. 18.
“I think something that could be very helpful is within the two week period prior to returning, just making sure that one is being extra careful, to protect themselves from exposure,” Martinello said. “Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of testing around the time students come back.”
Howard Forman, a professor of radiology and biomedical imaging, public health, management and economics, predicted that upon their return to campus in January, students would be asked to quarantine for “at least one week.”
This initial quarantine could help “clear out cases,” Forman said, and it would have been helpful in preventing the spike in cases that Yale saw after Thanksgiving break.
Although COVID-19 case rates, isolation housing capacity and the capacity of Yale New Haven Hospital are all factors that inform the decision to change alert level status, no single factor triggered the switch to orange status, Martinello said.
The dashboard’s on-campus isolation housing capacity tracker, which remained stagnant at 71 percent for several weeks at the start of the semester, jumped to 91 percent last week. Students in isolation housing at the time reported that the University had begun assigning students roommates in Arnold Hall, Yale’s on-campus isolation housing.
According to Martinello, isolation housing capacity remains high because the bulk of COVID-19 cases in the Yale community are not currently among undergraduate students living on campus.
In an interview with the News earlier this month, Forman speculated that the University would pay close attention to isolation housing capacity in its decision-making process about public-health policy for the rest of the semester.
Martinello explained that capacity at Yale New Haven Hospital is also an important factor in making the decision to change alert levels.
Even if vaccinated individuals infected with the Omicron variant experience relatively mild symptoms, a large number of people falling ill could affect hospital capacity and staffing, Martinello said.
“If there’s twice as many people getting sick, that still has a substantially increased impact on the healthcare system,” Martinello said. “More patients need to be seen, more people need to be tested, and more people need to be in the emergency department and hospitalized, and we’re already essentially at capacity.”
Yale New Haven Hospital temporarily expanded its emergency room services into the hospital parking lot earlier this month.
Forman suggested that COVID-19 conditions at Yale had already met the criteria for the orange alert level for some time.
“We probably could have gone to orange two weeks ago and then returned to yellow five days ago or a week ago, but I think they’re cautious not to be so switchful of things,” Forman said. “If you read the definition of orange, incidents of cases on campus have increased, and indicators show rates of infection may be increasing. That is absolutely true.”
Yale’s last revision to its COVID-19 alert level came after a surge in positive cases upon students’ return to campus following Thanksgiving break.
Update, Dec. 19: This story has been updated to include additional sourcing from University public health experts, including University COVID-19 Coordinator Stephanie Spangler.