Despite record-high COVID-19 cases and positivity rates during the first week of the spring 2022 semester, University of Nebraska-Lincoln officials remain optimistic about the weeks ahead.
Deb Fiddelke, UNL’s chief communication and marketing officer, said officials are seeing what they expected with seven-day positivity rates settling around 10%. She said this is good and was expected due to the COVID-19 omicron variant. Officials are also glad these rates aren’t higher.
“We have the highest number of positives we’ve had in a while, but with all the tools that we have at our disposal now, we’re rolling with it,” Fiddelke said. “I’m quite confident we’re going to continue to manage through this as well as we’ll get through it, and hopefully be able to ease some of the restrictions so people can have a great spring semester.”
The semester began on Tuesday, Jan. 18, with case counts between then and Sunday, Jan. 23, yielding 1,416 cases from 12,234 tests — a positivity rate of 11.57% — according to the UNL COVID-19 Dashboard.
All UNL faculty, staff and students were required to complete one round of re-entry testing between Jan. 9 and Jan. 21. Employees and student workers who had returned to campus in the beginning of the month were asked to test Jan. 9-13 while all other students were asked to complete a test Jan. 14-21.
The re-entry testing between Jan. 9-21 yielded 2,915 cases from 26,975 tests, or a positivity rate of about 10.81%.
Students living in on-campus housing are required to complete an additional test Jan. 23-28 to monitor the spread of COVID-19, and the omicron variant, in close quarters. According to a Nebraska Today article, the positivity rate for students in congregate housing was slightly higher, at an average of 11.4% compared to the campus’s 10.3% at the publication of the article.
Although there is a need for the additional testing, which was decided in conjunction with the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, Fiddelke said there’s no reason to be concerned about it or the associated data.
“If we were concerned, we’d be taking much more dramatic steps or severe steps than just asking them to test next week,” she said. “But we were seeing positivity rates that were higher, and so it merited testing that population to ensure we’ve contained the spread.”
An “unsung hero” of the pandemic, according to Fiddelke, has been the saliva-based testing program UNL set up more than a year ago. She said this allows a sensitive PCR test with results expected by the next day at an on-campus lab.
“The fact that we have that capacity and can turn those results so quickly puts us so far ahead of so much of the country right now,” Fiddelke said.
In response to concerns over whether UNL should have started online, Fiddelke said that while there is a larger positivity rate than much of 2021, the vast majority of people on campus have tested negative.
“We’ve added so many layers since the days when we were fully remote,” Fiddelke said. “And we remain committed to safely being able to provide an in-person educational experience.”
Going into this semester, Fiddelke said many felt as though another big wave could be coming, similar to early in the pandemic.
“It felt like we were planning again for March 2020, like, ‘Holy crap,’” she said. “And it hasn’t been ‘holy crap.’”
Fiddelke said UNL’s layered approach to the pandemic — stretching from mandatory masks, required testing and availability to COVID-19 vaccines and boosters — has allowed the campus to remain open.
Fortunately, studies have also said the omicron variant is more transmissible but less severe, which aids in response efforts, according to Fiddelke.
“That kind of ominous feeling that I think many of us felt not knowing what was going to hit, you know; sure it’s intense and there’s a lot of work and there’s a lot of things [and] data to sift through on a daily basis to make sure we’re pivoting as needed as or as necessary,” she said. “It's definitely not been March 2020. We’ve all learned how to manage through this and how to succeed through it.”
As the semester progresses, Fiddelke urges caution and for community members to continue masking, social distancing, getting vaccinations or booster doses and remaining mindful.
“It was wonderful when all of us could let our guard down a little bit,” Fiddelke said. “This isn’t the time. You need to step that back up. You need to keep it up for a bit and be really, really vigilant and … we will get through this.”