Ohio University's Cutler Hall on the first day of the semester.
Ohio University’s Cutler Hall on the first day of the semester. [Aaron Payne | Ohio Valley ReSource]

Ohio University races to test returning students as COVID-19 cases surge

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Ohio University is expecting a big surge in COVID-19 cases but remains committed to in-person instruction when classes resume Monday.

Dr. Gillian Ice, who oversees the university’s COVID-19 response, said case numbers are already rising rapidly and she expects a peak in the coming weeks that will be much higher than in the fall.

Meanwhile, the university is scrambling to meet its requirement that all Athens campus students be tested before the start of classes. Students at regional campuses are strongly encouraged, but not required, to get tested.

Students who live on the Athens campus were sent home in December with test kits to help streamline the process, but some of them forgot to take the test at home or bring the kits back with them to campus.

“That’s been kind of a nightmare for us,” Ice said.

And the recent decision to require off-campus students to get tested as well has only added to the challenge.

On-campus testing resumed this week, and the positivity rate so far has been fairly high. Under new guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those who test positive must isolate for five days and then wear a mask when around others for another five days.

The new guidelines cut the isolation time in half.

Ice said the university’s adoption of the new CDC guidelines was not optional. The Ohio Department of Health required schools to do so.

Given the short time frame and the number of students still to be tested, those who have not been able to get tested by Monday will still be able to start classes, Ice said.

“We’re not going to prevent anyone from going to class,” she said. “We want people to make a good-faith effort to test.”

COVID tests are not required for faculty and staff before the new semester starts but are strongly encouraged.

A CVS COVID-19 testing sign is seen on the campus of Ohio Univerisy, in Athens, Ohio, on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
A CVS COVID-19 testing sign is seen on the campus of Ohio University, in Athens on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
Everyone on campus is still required to wear masks indoors. But this semester, Ice said, she wants people wearing real masks. No more neck gaiters, bandanas or other substitutes. And the emphasis will be on using high-filtration masks, such as N95s, instead of masks made of cloth or other materials.

“We’ve been very fortunate up to this date that we have not had much in the way of classroom transmission and we’d like to keep it that way,” Ice said.

High-filtration masks will be available at various locations on campus, such as Alden Library, Baker Center and Ping Recreation Center.

The new CDC guidelines also update the isolation guidelines for those who are exposed to someone with COVID-19 but have not developed symptoms. In short, those who were vaccinated recently or received a booster shot do not have to quarantine. Everyone else must quarantine for five days.

Because a booster shot will in many cases determine whether someone has to isolate, Ice encourages students, faculty and staff to update their vaccination status in the university’s registration system to include a booster.

“We don’t want to bog down our system by putting people into quarantine only to find out that they are indeed boosted,” she said.

Ice said she suspects far more people have received booster shots than is reflected in the university’s records.

The university also required last semester that all students, faculty and staff either get vaccinated or qualify for an exemption for religious, medical or other eligible reason. The deadline was Nov. 15.

Students who did not get vaccinated were automatically granted an exemption, allowing them to enroll for spring semester. These students must get tested weekly.

As of Tuesday, more than 91 percent of Athens students were vaccinated and 1,180 had received exemptions, according to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard.

The number for the regional campuses is considerably lower: For the five regional campuses combined, 66.6 percent of students are vaccinated and 570 have received exemptions.

This still leaves hundreds of students starting spring semester on the Athens and regional campuses combined who are not vaccinated and not exempted.

University spokesperson Jim Sabin explained that some of these are new students, who have a later deadline for compliance. Others are online-only students or middle and high schoolers taking classes for college credit, who do not fall under the mandate.