For many students, today marks a return to their first in-person classes since Emory University shut down campus in March 2020. The University does so as the Delta variant continues to spread rapidly across the United States, and in a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

Though all students, staff and faculty are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19, only about 40% of Georgia’s population was fully vaccinated as of Monday, according to Emory’s COVID-19 Health Equity Dashboard Vaccination Tracker. This puts the state ahead of seven others using this metric.

As of Tuesday, 92.2% of students and 89.8% of faculty and staff at Emory have been fully vaccinated, according to the Emory Forward COVID-19 Dashboard.

Emory is not requiring regular testing for vaccinated students and employees. Unvaccinated individuals will have to get tested upon arriving at Emory and weekly afterwards until they are fully vaccinated. Emory Student Health Services held vaccination clinics on Friday, Saturday and Sunday with the aim of providing required vaccines, including COVID-19, to any students who had not received one previously.

Photo by Caelan Bailey

“[We’re] trying to make things accessible, depending on people’s timing and when they’re arriving,” Executive Director of Emory Student Health Services Sharon Rabinovitz said. “It’s a long term solution to get the vaccine for a lot of people who just haven’t had access.”

In addition to mandating that all Emory community members receive a vaccine, the University is also requiring masking in indoor spaces on campus. This policy aligns with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, updated late last month, that recommends masking in all public spaces, whether or not an individual is vaccinated, in places with “substantial or high transmission.”

The CDC reported that DeKalb, Newton and Fulton counties all have a “high” level of transmission as of Sunday as did much of the U.S. Between Aug. 9-23, the PCR testing positivity rate in Georgia was just over 16%, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

In Georgia and across the U.S., cases have been on the rise, largely due to the Delta variant. Case numbers at Emory have also been much higher than they were during the first half of the summer, with the University reporting 44 student cases and 83 faculty and staff cases since July 12, an average of more than 20 new cases a week.

“We know that community prevalence has increased over the past several weeks, and so I think that is the main indicator of why we’re seeing more cases,” Rabinovitz said. “The other indicator is, we have more people on campus.”

The updated CDC guidelines reversed its previous recommendation that vaccinated individuals did not need to wear a mask in most public places to remain safe. According to Colleen Kraft, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital, wearing masks in public is a way to prevent transmission and reduce opportunities for the virus to mutate.

“I know that it’s very difficult, and people feel like we’re sliding backward, but I think in general, until we can get more people vaccinated, or at least stop the transmission so that we don’t have it transmitting in the community, then mask-wearing is the easiest fix,” Kraft said in a late July virtual media briefing.

Kraft also said that the change in guidance from earlier in the summer makes sense, as the prevalence of the Delta variant was much lower when the original guidance was issued than it is now.

The Delta variant accounted for about 86% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. in the week before Aug. 14, the CDC estimates. In the week preceding May 15, during which the CDC released its earlier guidance, it accounted for only 2.4% of cases.

Emory is currently operating at a “green” operating status, with no limits on gathering size and with classes and residence halls at normal capacity. If necessary, the University is prepared to put gathering restrictions back in place and alter testing and social distancing policies, Associate Vice President and Executive Director of COVID-19 Response and Recovery Amir St. Clair said.

“We’re prepared to make changes in restrictions or placing some additional protocols in place,” St. Clair said.“But, do we anticipate needing to do that, and when would we need to do that? That’s hard for us to answer at this point in time.”

If necessary, Emory could increase its testing capacity to be able to test all students weekly, St. Clair said, though the University’s response to any surges in cases will typically be more targeted.

“If we see a surge or an outbreak, how we respond will be largely determined by what type of outbreak it is, who’s being impacted, where’s that transmission occurring and where’s the substantiated risk,” St. Clair explained. “That will help inform what measures we need to take, and if we do need to increase or scale up testing, we are prepared to be able to do that.”

Although Emory has put policies in place, St. Clair noted that individuals’ behavior will also determine the University’s ability to operate safely in-person.

“We’re committed to being in person together. We believe we’ve created safe and healthy standards to be able to do that,” St. Clair said. “It has to be done on campus and off campus… We have to live this out in all phases of our lives.”