Is COVID-19 here to stay? Yalies voice concern.
In light of this summer’s spike in COVID-19 cases, which was brought on by new virus strains, Yale experts and administrators weigh in on the current severity of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ariane De Gennaro, Senior Illustrator
As Yalies settle into the rhythm of campus life, COVID-19 cases continue to rise across New Haven County and Connecticut at large. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of weekly COVID-19 hospitalizations in the region has more than doubled since July.
Although levels remain low compared to this time last year, cases across Connecticut have been steadily increasing over the past several weeks. The most recent available CDC data indicate that there were 184 new COVID-19 hospitalizations in Connecticut during the week of Aug. 19, up from 80 weekly hospitalizations at the start of July.
In New Haven County, according to the CDC, there were 89 new hospitalizations during the week of Aug. 19, a nearly 30-percent increase from the week prior.
“We have seen the same general uptick in cases on campus that have been reported elsewhere, as students travel to campus and gatherings bring people together again,” wrote Madeline Wilson, Yale’s chief campus health officer, in an email to the News.
But experts believe that COVID-19 cases may be even higher than the newest CDC reports suggest. According to Gregg Gonsalves, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, the hospitalization data is a “lagging indicator,” meaning that the rise in hospitalizations is a delayed measurement of a previous spike in COVID-19 cases.
The current COVID-19 caseload, he explained, is difficult to measure accurately.
“Over the past few weeks we have seen a rise in COVID hospitalizations, which … suggests that there has been a rise in cases preceding these admissions,” Gonsalves wrote in an email to the News. “Since many people are not testing or don’t have the resources to do so, how many cases we have locally [is] hard to discern.”
The difficulty in estimating current COVID-19 cases might be exacerbated by lenient reporting requirements for when people test positive.
According to Choukri Ben-Mamoun, a professor of microbial pathogenesis and pathology at the Yale School of Medicine, at-home, over-the-counter rapid antigen tests are increasingly popular tools to screen for COVID-19. Testing at home, he noted, rather than at certified facilities that are required to report new COVID-19 cases, might be causing a potential underreporting of COVID-19 diagnoses.
An Eris wave
Despite difficulties in estimating COVID-19 numbers, Gonsalves believes that the U.S. is in the midst of a “summer surge” likely driven by new variants of the coronavirus. Notable among these, experts say, is the EG.5 variant of the virus, also known as Eris.
According to Michael Cappello, a professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases at YSPH, new variants like Eris may be more contagious or better at dodging immunity acquired from previous vaccination or infection. Such factors could be driving the uptick in symptomatic cases.
Because the new variants can more easily evade “short-lived” protection from a previous COVID-19 infection or vaccination, Cappello explained, people might be at greater risk of developing the disease as they become “more relaxed” and less likely to take precautions like wearing a mask and washing their hands.
“The new variants … are potentially more transmissible and perhaps less susceptible to vaccine induced antibodies, but it’s a bit early to know for sure whether they will present a greater risk to the Yale community in terms of severe illness leading to hospitalization,” Cappello wrote to the News. “For now, the current CDC and Yale guidelines are appropriate to follow, but as with any fluid situation, students should remain alert to changes in recommendations.”
In response to the uptick, Yale continues to monitor COVID-19 cases on campus and requests that those who test positive report their result to the University, Wilson told the News. Free rapid antigen tests are also available to students at residential colleges and in designated locations, such as the Yale Bookstore.
In January, Yale Health expanded its infrastructure to create a new Campus Health Office, helmed by Wilson, to coordinate the University’s health response, including vaccination registration. She noted that the University also plans to roll out free COVID-19 and flu vaccines in October, with information about accessing them set to be released after Labor Day.
“Overall levels of immunity on campus are high due to prior vaccination and infection, and we hope that most will take the opportunity to get the updated COVID vaccine and boost immunity further,” Wilson wrote. “While we are vigilant, we feel we are well-equipped to manage the inevitable cases on campus this fall.”
Public health experts told the News that they expect fall and winter to bring a resurgence of COVID-19, particularly since most mitigation measures have been dropped across the country and at institutions of higher learning.
“COVID is likely seasonal similarly to other respiratory diseases,” Jeffrey Townsend, Elihu Professor of Biostatistics at the School of Public Health, wrote to the News. “As the summer comes to an end, it is likely to begin to increase in prevalence in alignment with other respiratory diseases.”
Townsend noted that because many people will be over six months from their last COVID-19 booster as winter approaches, they will be at increased risk to variants like Eris. Other factors, such as a reduced reliance on protective measures, such as masking, and frequent gathering in closed-air environments will likely also play a role in this season’s transmission.
However, public health faculty whom the News contacted for comment agreed on the key steps needed to reduce the burden of COVID-19 in the coming months.
Both Cappello and Gonsalves recommended staying up-to-date on vaccinations, getting the next vaccine booster in the coming semester, wearing a mask in crowded indoor spaces and testing for COVID-19 if feeling ill.
“You don’t want COVID. Even if you are young and healthy, risks still remain for you, and … while you may not get seriously ill, we are all one or two degrees of separation from those at higher risk,” Gonsalves said. “Getting through this means getting through this together.”
Connecticut’s COVID-19 public health emergency declaration ended on May 11, 2023.