College campuses once seen as pandemic hotspots that transformed into safety zones now are bracing for a potential omicron surge, relying for now on existing defenses and in some cases intensifying protection by requiring testing and boosters.
And while school administrators say they’ll stay with in-person education, they were questioning mass gatherings. Basketball fans converging on the University of Colorado Events Center in Boulder Tuesday night for the CU game against the University of Kansas had to go home instead as CU officials abruptly canceled it, citing “COVID-19 protocols.”
Two private schools — Regis University and Colorado College — ramped up protection declaring that booster shots, and proof, will be mandatory for students returning in January. Only those granted vaccination exemptions based on written attestations can skip the boosters.
“Booster shots are vital to protect the community from infection, serious illness and hospitalization. We need everyone to do their part not only to protect their own health but the health of your colleagues, classmates, friends and neighbors,” Regis president the Rev. John Fitzgibbons said in a letter to the campus community.
“Vaccination is particularly vital to help relieve our healthcare professionals,” Fitzgibbons wrote, “who are carrying the burden of consistent high hospitalization rates largely due to unvaccinated individuals contracting COVID-19.”
At CC in Colorado Springs, officials said they’re anticipating higher numbers of COVID-19 cases as omicron spreads and announced that, in addition to mandatory boosters, all students must take a test upon their return to the campus in January. Before students left for holiday breaks, CC provided self-test kits to help students and their families around the country.
CC students now are required to cover their noses and mouths with N95 or KN95 masks, provided as needed by the school, replacing cloth masks for use “in all indoor public spaces.”
College campuses deemed high-risk in 2020 as potential hot zones for COVID-19 have relied on high rates of vaccination and strict masking to become relatively safe havens, and school officials said they were confident in November when omicron emerged in South Africa.
Positive test rates on campuses this past fall stayed as low as 2.3% on campuses, well below the off-campus rates in surrounding communities. State health officials reported relatively few major outbreaks at schools.
A shift toward increased testing encompasses Colorado’s community college system — 13 schools with 40 locations serving 100,000 students, a majority living off campus. As omicron spread into Europe, Colorado Community Colleges chancellor Joe Garcia said he plans to require testing once a week for students and staff who haven’t been vaccinated.
At the major public universities, campus administrators this week were relying mostly on their existing protections as omicron approached without making booster shots mandatory.
“We are closely monitoring it – both the virus itself and how to respond to it. This is changing every day,” CU interim president Todd Saliman said. “And we are encouraging all students, faculty and staff to get boosted.”
Free COVID testing is available at CU for all students, faculty and staff but testing is not required.
These protocols provide “the right foundation” for starting classes in January, CU spokesman Joshua Lindenstein said.
Colorado State University’s pandemic preparedness leaders in Fort Collins, noting students won’t return for several weeks, said they’re discussing protection measures with Larimer County public health officials. They said they’re poised to “respond proactively as the COVID environment changes.” And they pointed to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s recommended testing, isolation and quarantine requirements for anyone who tests positive or is exposed to COVID, which “remains for omicron as it has for all variants”
All unvaccinated students and employees at CSU have been required to take saliva screening tests twice a week.
Colorado Department of Higher Education officials planned a zoom meeting next week with presidents of public universities to discuss possible new measures.
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