While Ohio University's Fall Semester began only three weeks ago, there are rapidly increasing trends around campus of students, faculty and staff reporting positive for COVID-19.
The newest strand of COVID-19, BA2.86 – more commonly known as Pirola – is more contagious than other strains of the virus; however, there is still some speculation about how extreme this strain is and how it compares to past strains in severity.
Athens City-County Health Department Commissioner James Gaskell said Pirola has been reported in at least 10 countries around the world and three states – Ohio, Michigan and Virginia – within the U.S.
Currently, the most common strain of COVID-19 in the U.S. is EG.5, or Eris, Gaskell said, but it is predicted to be replaced by Pirola within the next few months, according to experts.
“Testing should work for the new variant, but there’s concern about the new variant being very contagious,” Gaskell said. “We don't know about how virulent it will be (because) there haven't been very many cases yet in the United States.”
Gaskell said the health department had doubled in reported cases in Athens County as of Sept. 5, with 35 cases and only 17 cases reported from the week before.
“From reports, I don't think that it will be terribly virulent and probably will not result in numerous hospitalizations,” Gaskell said. “(However), I think a lot of students will probably be infected with this.”
The health department advises everyone to get the COVID-19 booster vaccine and influenza vaccine. Gaskell said a new COVID-19 booster will be available sometime around late September to early October, and the Athens City-County Health Department will be providing booster shots once it becomes available to the public.
Currently, the university allows infected students to continue attending classes as long as they wear masks, Gaskell said. He expects to see an increase in mask-wearing around campus.
“I think there's going to be a lot of masking among the students as determined by infection,” Gaskell said. “We're going to wait and see how high the incidences of infection are.”
Daniel Pittman, university spokesperson, said students are no longer required by the university to test, report symptoms or report a positive test.
One student, Makeala Feldman, a freshman studying nursing, tested positive during the first week of classes.
“I had a scratchy throat – it didn't hurt – it was a scratchy throat and then a little bit of congestion (and) a tiny cough,” Feldman said. “If I didn't test, there’s no way I would have known if I had (COVID-19) or not.”
Feldman decided to talk to her residential advisor, and she was told she could isolate in her dorm room, but she decided to go home and quarantine there through Labor Day weekend. She was then able to attend classes the following Tuesday.
With the amount of illness Feldman has been seeing on campus, she said she wants the university to pay attention to students who have been getting sick recently.
“There's a lot more people that have been getting sick, so it's weird,” Feldman said. “I feel like it's definitely something that the university should be mindful of.”
Pittman encourages students to take advantage of the healthcare opportunities on campus, like Ohio Health Campus Care, which is equipped to help students who may be experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
“OhioHealth Campus Care stands ready to provide students with a wide range of on-campus health services, including treatments for illnesses such as colds, flu and COVID-19 symptoms,” Pittman wrote in an email.
The university can also provide students, faculty and staff with rapid antigen tests through mid-fall 2023 or until the supply runs out, Pittman said.
“Moving forward, the university will continue to work closely alongside its partners within the Athens City-County Health Department and the Ohio Department of Health to help keep our community safe,” Pittman wrote in an email.
The Athens County Health Department still believes there is cause for concern with students being back on campus, being in close proximity and spending more time together.
“I think the disease is sort of a perfect storm,” Gaskell said. “Students are in close proximity to each other, and all it requires is a few students to be affected and they will infect other students because you all go to class together … and spend a lot of time together, so it’s not surprising in university communities to have surges and upticks in infection rates.”