Omicron is here, and it’s spreading.
The first case was detected in the United States on Wednesday, and since then, more than 20 people have tested positive for the new variant domestically. Cases have been detected in more than a dozen states, including as close as Maryland.
Whether Omicron is going to cause a new surge in cases is unclear as of yet, but there is some indication that it could spread twice as fast as the currently raging Delta variant, and public health officials nationwide are sounding the alarm. State governments and federal officials are beginning to take steps to preempt any risks that the new variant could cause to the country’s recovery from the pandemic. The University should act too – GW should mandate booster shots for all community members to keep the community safe and stave off a return to online classes.
Officials encouraged students to get booster shots if they are eligible, and noted that GW does not “yet” require boosters in an email on Friday. That’s a clear signal of openness to doing so – officials should not wait. The University should make that a requirement sooner rather than later.
The world is still scrambling to understand what kind of threat the Omicron variant presents. Whether existing vaccines will be effective against it, whether it will cause more breakthrough infections or whether it will be more transmissible are all questions the global scientific community is racing to answer. But prominent public health experts, like Dr. Anthony Fauci and National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins, have pointed to booster shots as a critically important way to prepare for any potential new variant. Last week, within days of the new variant dropping, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its recommendation about boosters, saying that anyone 18 years or older who was eligible for a booster “should” get one instead of their previous language that said they “may” receive the shot. The public health community seems nearly unanimous in their belief that, no matter what the specifics of the Omicron variant end up being, people should get booster shots to protect themselves against it.
But even if the Omicron variant fizzles out or does not end up being severe – which is entirely possible, considering that other variants of concern have died out quickly too – officials at GW said in an email to students that they were already expecting that cases of COVID-19 would rise over the holidays. With colder weather making outdoor activities less feasible and vaccine effectiveness tending to wane somewhat, GW is far from out of the woods when it comes to the pandemic.
An uptick in cases would jeopardize all of the progress GW has made in keeping students safe and restoring some sense of normalcy on campus. Online learning is a thing of the past for most students, and classrooms have reopened, albeit with mask mandates. But if cases rise on campus, the University’s Onward GW plan provides for various ways to start scaling back normal activity to keep students safe. Nobody wants public spaces to be closed, and nobody wants a return to the hellscape that was Zoom University.
Keeping the community safe is of the utmost importance. As bad as a return to online classes or the closure of public spaces would be, putting at-risk people in danger would be orders of magnitude worse. While most students fall into the category of people who are less likely to experience negative outcomes from the coronavirus, that does not mean immunosuppressed or immunocompromised students’ safety doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t mean that faculty and staff, many of whom are older and at greater risk, should be ignored either. GW has a responsibility to keep people safe, while also ensuring a high quality of education. The best way to attain both of those goals amid the specter of Omicron would be to mandate booster shots for all those eligible.
GW would have to thread the needle carefully in mandating this, providing enough leeway for people to comfortably schedule an appointment. CDC guidelines say those who have received an mRNA vaccine shot – either Moderna or Pfizer – should wait six months before receiving a booster. Recipients of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine only have to wait two months. The University’s deadline for getting boosted should be some time after Feb. 1, 2022, at which point everyone who was fully vaccinated by the University’s Aug. 1 deadline earlier this year will be eligible for the booster. This way, the University can provide a generous timeline for getting boosted with the urgency of getting the community that extra protection.
GW should also increase its communication about coronavirus protocol now that the Omicron variant has entered the country, by continuously emailing the GW community about a potential rise in cases and what the University plans to do about it. Because students are going to be traveling to their home states or home countries, officials should plan on increasing testing, stepping up contract tracing efforts and only giving GWorld access to students whose tests come back negative. During Thanksgiving break, students heard essentially nothing from GW about increasing testing after break, recommending emphasized caution around potentially unvaccinated family or community members, or requiring a negative test to receive access to buildings, even though news of the Omicron variant was already out. If this laxed attitude extends to post-Christmas break, then Zoom University might need to make a reappearance. The University should address concerns of an uptick in cases and increased transmission so that students don’t face a second semester like the one in 2020–cut short by the pandemic.
Thanks to mandatory vaccines and testing, coronavirus cases on campus have been low this semester – but if worst comes to worst and Omicron starts stalking through D.C. and the GW community, then the University should have a contingency plan to minimize the spread and the effects of the virus on the learning environment. Only allowing GWorld access to students whose tests turn out to be negative and stepped-up contact tracing are just some ways to mitigate the effects that Omicron could have on our community, as well as the greater D.C. community.
GW was ahead of the curve when it first announced a coronavirus vaccine mandate for students back in April 2020. It should take similar decisive action again now, and require booster shots to keep the community safe and lock in the progress we’ve made toward a return to normalcy.
The editorial board consists of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s staff editorial was written by opinions editor Andrew Sugrue and contributing opinions editor Shreeya Aranake based on discussions with culture editor Anna Boone, contributing sports editor Nuria Diaz, design editor Grace Miller, copy editor Jaden DiMauro and assistant copy editor Karina Ochoa Berkley.