Ohio University sees a record surge in COVID-19 cases as spring semester gets underway

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — As students returned to Ohio University for the start of spring semester, so did COVID-19 infections — and then some.

“We have a huge caseload right now, like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” said Dr. Gillian Ice, who oversees the university’s COVID operations.

She said much of that spike was from students getting tested before returning to classes last week, which the university required.

The case numbers have dropped since then, she said, but it’s too soon to say whether they will continue to decline. The highly contagious omicron variant is driving the surge in cases and it’s still going strong.

“All the modeling is suggesting that we’re not going to reach the peak in Ohio until the end of the month,” Ice said. “We’re going to have high rates of transmission probably through February or longer.”

In the meantime, the university has ramped up testing and is encouraging everyone on campus to wear high-filtration masks.

Ice said she is confident that even with the surge, it is safe for students and faculty to be back in the classroom.

Ninety-one percent of students and employees on the Athens campus are fully vaccinated. This is considerably higher than the rate for all of Athens County, which is about 49 percent.

The vaccination number for the regional campuses is much lower at just over 73 percent, but it has been inching upward.

The bottom line is that COVID transmission is far more likely to happen outside the classroom than inside, where masks are mandatory, Ice said.

This was the case last semester, where contact tracing found only one instance where COVID may have been transmitted in a classroom.

Ice said she expects the same this semester even with the omicron variant.

“Is going into the classroom increasing the risk of infection? Not based on the information that we have,” she said. “Where we are seeing transmission is when folks get together with others and they’re not taking precaution outside of the classroom.”

Ice said she understands that the recent surge in cases has a lot of people on edge.

“Everybody’s anxiety about this is through the roof,” she said. “But we have tools at our disposal to protect ourselves and to protect each other. But we actually have to use them and we have to use them consistently.”

At the same time, she said, it’s important to understand that eliminating all risk is unrealistic.

“Most people are not locking down in their houses and never leaving,” she said. “So the risk is there and we have to take reasonable steps to decrease our risk, individually and as a community.”