Within the last week, Emory reported 54 new cases, about twice as high as its highest weekly total from the fall semester.

The largest portion of cases were made up of off-campus students at 26 cases. There was one off-campus faculty case.

On-campus cases, recorded at various facilities and residence halls, consisted of nine students, three faculty and 14 staff members. Only Few Hall, Clairmont Undergraduate Residential Center, Woodruff Residential Center, the Candler School of Theology and the Pediatrics Clinic at Emory Children’s Center reported more than one case; no location saw more than two cases.

Managing the surge

Though cases are at Emory’s highest since the beginning of the pandemic, the increase was expected, said Amir St. Clair, executive director for COVID-19 response and recovery at Emory. 

Increased spread from holiday travel and greater numbers of students living on campus led to this expectation. He noted higher case numbers are also likely due to a higher testing capacity and the mandating of testing for off-campus students who attend classes or complete research on campus.

Emory’s weekly testing capacity, or the maximum number of tests it can perform per week, increased from 2,500 at the end of last semester to more than 10,000 as of the first week of spring classes, St. Clair said. The current saliva-based test can detect the most common form of COVID-19 virus as well as a new variant first detected in the United Kingdom.

The University is hiring more contact tracers to help identify new cases and stricter regulations on gatherings were imposed until Feb. 8 in an effort to mitigate this flood of new cases.

Cases in DeKalb county are trending downward and Executive Director of Emory Student Health Services Sharon Rabinovitz is hopeful the trend in student cases will follow suit.

“We have consistently mirrored that pretty much all year; when the DeKalb County trend decreases, the student trend also decreases,” she said.

Rabinovitz also stressed the importance of continuing to observe safety practices such as mask wearing and avoiding gatherings.

“I think that it can’t be overstated how much these mitigating behavioral interventions are still paramount,” Rabinovitz said. “As much as the testing is increasing, that is also going to get us across the finish line over this semester.”

The largest number of students in quarantine at the Emory Conference Center Hotel last semester was 68, Rabinovitz said. As of Sunday night, there were 36 students at the hotel.

She also acknowledged that the high case numbers have been disruptive for the transition back to campus.

“We know it’s been very difficult for students, especially at the beginning of the semester, really kind of getting going with their studies,” Rabinovitz said. “They are numbers, but they are people who are being impacted pretty significantly.”

Staff vaccinations on the horizon, student timeline still uncertain

The state of Georgia may move to vaccination phase 1B, which includes essential workers, in March, according to a Jan. 29 student-wide email from St. Clair.

The state has not released enough guidance on what specific groups of workers will be included in 1B for Emory to inform its employees whether they will be eligible in the next phase, St. Clair said. This means that no employees, including faculty and Residence Life staff, are definitively excluded from this group.

“We are planning to include everybody, so that when we’re ready to make that move and the state has given us that guideline, we can go ahead and act,” he said.

How fast Emory can vaccinate its community depends on how many vaccines it receives from the state of Georgia, which in turn depends on what the federal government can procure from the manufacturers and allot to each state. Therefore, St. Clair said, it is difficult to know when students who don’t fall into phases 1A, 1B or 1C can be vaccinated.

Emory has not yet made a decision on whether to mandate a COVID-19 vaccine for students returning to campus in the fall. St. Clair explained that this is because not enough data is available on the effectiveness of the vaccine and he is unsure whether students will be able to receive the vaccine by then.

When they become eligible under Georgia guidelines, international students will be able to receive a vaccine from Emory.

Because each state’s vaccination distribution process is different, students living outside of Georgia in the U.S. may be eligible to receive a vaccine before receiving one from Emory.

“We want them to get the vaccine,” St. Clair said. “So they don’t have to wait for Georgia to give it to them if they live somewhere else.”