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Cautiously optimistic, Ohio State’s COVID monitoring team builds on fall’s lessons

New variants, complacency remain top concerns

Encouraged by low positivity rates and other COVID-19 trends so far this semester, the leaders of Ohio State’s Comprehensive Monitoring Team call for continued vigilance in a new report that recaps lessons learned in the fall, highlights advances made for the spring and serves as a reminder of ongoing threats, including emerging new viral variants.

The report, the second from the team, comes as the university looks toward fall and makes plans to return to a more traditional on-campus experience for students, faculty and staff.

“Positivity rates among our students are relatively low, and we’re even better-positioned to find cases and eliminate spread than we were last semester. But as much as we’ve accomplished through the vigilance and commitment of our community, we must not allow complacency, pandemic fatigue and the longing for a light at the end of this long tunnel to set us back,” said Amy Fairchild, dean of Ohio State’s College of Public Health.

“Through our collective hard work, we are making reality of our dreams of getting to spend more time together learning, teaching and enjoying good times with our fellow Buckeyes.”

Fairchild heads the monitoring team, a group of experts charged with monitoring the virus, containing its spread and making recommendations to university leadership. In its second report, released today, the team details efforts to routinely test more students, identify trends in transmission and control COVID-19’s reach on and around campus.

Of particular focus at this stage in the pandemic: Looking out for the emergence of highly transmissible variants of the virus and reinforcing the importance of health and safety measures.

“The pandemic is not over just because higher-risk Americans have begun to receive vaccine and the startling numbers we saw in Ohio and throughout the nation have fallen. While we see hope, we remain on guard against a virus that has proven to be and continues to be a powerful force,” Fairchild said.

“Properly-worn masks should remain part of our Buckeye uniform, and we must continue to make sacrifices when it comes to staying physically distant and limiting gatherings. This comprehensive approach continues to protect us, our friends and family, and the entire community during this period when we are still far from achieving herd immunity.”

Key updates in the new report include:

  • Expanded testing: Improved spring testing protocols include expanded move-in testing and routine weekly testing for off-campus residents, doubling the number of students tested weekly, to about 40,000 tests per week. Increased testing bolsters Ohio State’s ability to identify cases, most of which are asymptomatic, and to isolate those cases and quarantine their at-risk close contacts.
  • Speedier response: The efficiency of Ohio State’s on-site testing program — resulting in faster testing turn-around times — and increased Case Investigation and Contact Tracing Team staffing reduce the time to isolation and quarantine and decrease potential subsequent exposures both on and around campus and within the community.
  • Trends in transmission: The team found minimal evidence of people becoming infected while working, learning and teaching on campus. Most cases remain connected to transmission within residential settings, and particularly within group housing.
  • Regional campuses: The university expanded its testing efforts at regional campuses, and has monitored prevalence in the counties where the regional campuses are located.

In its report, the monitoring team also noted that spring semester brings new territory: resuming testing for those students who previously tested positive and are now beyond the 90-day window in which continued testing is not recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After that 90-day period concludes, students who had positive tests in the fall are required to return to the weekly testing schedule. If they test positive, they will have to go into isolation. They will also be required to quarantine if they are identified as a close contact of someone who tested positive.

Though some members of the Ohio State community have begun to receive vaccine, it is important to recognize that a vaccine does not eliminate an individual’s responsibility to continue to follow safe and healthy guidelines, Fairchild said.

Vaccinated students, for example, are currently required to participate in routine COVID-19 testing and to follow isolation and quarantine guidance. The studies supporting use of the current vaccines showed that they were effective in preventing illness, but as of now there is not sufficient evidence to show that they prevent a vaccinated person from transmitting infection to others. The Comprehensive Monitoring Team will continue to evaluate emerging evidence and update recommendations on this front as appropriate. 

“Vaccinations provide another layer of protection and another tool in our safe and healthy toolbox, but their arrival does not signal an end to or a lessening of precautions on and around campus,” Fairchild said.

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