After enjoying a traditional college semester largely unscathed by COVID-19, Temple University’s decision to start the Spring 2022 virtually made Hannah Walker pretty pessimistic about the future viability of her freshman year.
“I honestly don’t feel like we’re going to have a full normal semester,” said Walker, a freshman sociology major.
Walker hopes Temple implements a COVID-19 booster shot requirement to ensure students do their part in preventing a potential outbreak, she said.
Rather than waiting for guidance from the City of Philadelphia, Temple University must immediately require eligible students and faculty to receive COVID-19 booster shots to ensure another semester of primarily in-person learning. Implementing the requirement now would give some students the opportunity to get boosters before returning to campus.
After Temple announced plans to begin the Spring 2022 semester with two weeks of online learning, the university bought itself some time to go on the offensive in preventing a potential outbreak on Main Campus.
Waiting on the city to mandate boosters would just be wasting borrowed time.
Campus services remaining open during the virtual learning period from Jan. 10 through Jan. 21 produces more in-person interactions that creates an additional risk for transmission among students. A dramatic rise in on-campus cases as students return from the holidays could be prevented by incentivizing students to get shots while they’re away from Main Campus.
Temple should be applauded for opting for temporary virtual learning without being nudged by the city but their efforts must go a step further to withstand the effects of the surging Omicron variant.
Today, the United States broke its record for daily COVID-19 cases with more than 480,000 as the Omicron variant accounts for just more than half all new infections nationwide, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The university has 145 active cases of COVID-19 as of Dec. 29., up substantially from the 36 active cases reported a month ago on Nov. 29, according to Temple’s COVID-19 dashboard.
THE CITY HAS NO CURRENT BOOSTER PLAN
Temple relied heavily on the City of Philadelphia in navigating its fall COVID-19 response.
In July, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health recommended that masks be worn indoors amid a spike in cases from the Delta variant. Temple then waited until Aug. 10 to announce its own mask mandate, weeks after businesses throughout the city began implementing the city’s recommendations.
On Aug. 13, the city announced that all healthcare workers, students and faculty in city universities must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15. Hours later, Temple responded by mandating that all students and faculty must be vaccinated by the same deadline.
Temple was one of the last local schools to implement a vaccine mandate as the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University both announced vaccination requirements for the fall in April, The Temple News reported.
Both Penn and Drexel again recently took the lead by requiring boosters for their spring semesters ahead of city guidance. Temple’s decision to wait for the city to announce a vaccine mandate ultimately set them further back in the push to get their student body vaccinated as students who were recently vaccinated in the fall may not be eligible for a booster, whereas Penn and Drexel are reaping the benefits of proactive decisions made in April.
However, the university should still implement a boost requirement, even if some students gain eligibility months from now.
The city welcomes university decisions to mandate boosters, even if they come prior to city guidance, said James Garrow, director of communications for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.
“While we don’t have an official stance on any institutions, be the universities, requiring boosters, we know that boosters are probably one of the best ways that we’ll be able to knock down any potential surge in cases from Omicron,” Garrow said.
Despite the city’s support for boosters, there aren’t any imminent plans to announce a mandate, Garrow said.
The city’s vaccine requirement for colleges and universities was prompted by an Aug. 12 vote from the Philadelphia Board of Public Health. The board does not meet again until Jan. 4, 2022, so Temple’s decision to wait could lead to a spike in cases when students return to residence halls on Jan. 8.
BOOSTERS MIGHT SOON BE NECESSARY
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention specifies individuals must receive two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to be considered fully vaccinated, they have encouraged Americans to receive their booster shots six months after receiving their initial two doses to protect themselves against the Omicron variant.
“By getting a booster what you’re doing, essentially, is making sure that the transmission is lower and the risk of disease is lower and that’s a plus for everybody,” said Graciela Jaschek, an epidemiology and biostatistics professor.
Despite more than one million Philadelphians being fully vaccinated, the Omicron variant’s ability to evade the protection of vaccines warrants a stronger effort from universities to require boosters. Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 booster shots provide immune responses that neutralize the Omicron variant, according to studies from both pharmaceutical companies.
Jaschek acknowledges Temple’s success in vaccinating 97 percent of students and faculty but believes the gradual waning immunity from an individual’s initial two-dose series necessitates an eventual booster, she said.
Booster shots increase an individual’s capacity to fight the virus by protecting them from infection, Jascheck said.
Employers have increasingly mandated boosters so Temple’s decision to require it among students would ensure they’re able to pursue personal and professional opportunities outside of school, one of their stated goals of their Aug. 13 vaccine mandate.
According to a December 2021 survey from Gartner, a consulting firm, eight percent of employers have begun changing their definition of “fully vaccinated” to include a third shot, accounting for one in six of the 46 percent of U.S. employers with vaccine requirements, CNN reported.
STUDENTS COULD SPREAD THE VIRUS ON CAMPUS
Temple University’s decision to begin the spring semester with two weeks of remote learning to counter COVID-19 is a lost opportunity if students are spreading the virus in university facilities that will remain open.
Temple could not be reached for comment but encouraged students to get boosters as soon as possible in a December 2021 announcement from President Jason Wingard.
Walker hopes the university will be proactive in encouraging students to continue health practices considering some students may have forgotten them as restrictions were loosened, she said.
“People don’t won’t wash their hands, people sneeze and then touch things,” Walker said. “In our friend group I feel like someone got sick all the time.”
Fall 2020 case data from 30 colleges and universities determined they are “superspreaders” with cases likely driven by shared common facilities like libraries, residence halls and dorms, according to a December 2020 study from Computer Methods in Biomechanics and Biomedical Engineering, a peer-reviewed journal.
Temple must act swiftly by requiring students and faculty to receive booster shots to ensure another normal semester of in-person learning and vibrant campus life that students have grown accustomed to. Failure to do so would interfere with the academic strides students have made so far this year.