On Dec. 28, Emory University announced that the first three weeks of the semester will be online and encouraged students to delay their return to campus after this remote period. This came as no surprise, as institutions like Harvard University (Mass.), Columbia University (N.Y.), Duke University (N.C.) and Georgetown University (D.C.), had published similar plans in the days prior.
While this decision should ideally reduce COVID-19 cases on campus, literature about the new Omicron variant’s mild symptoms will likely encourage Emory students to continue to gather in large groups and plan early returns to Atlanta. This not only risks the safety and well-being of others in the Emory community but also decreases the likelihood of a normal spring semester. To some, Omicron may not seem like a major threat, but developing research shows that the coronavirus is still spreading much faster than ever. In everyone’s best interest, delay your return to campus or limit your social gatherings as much as possible in the coming weeks.
Studies show the mildness of the new variant isn’t as straightforward as it seems. The Omicron variant invades our cells differently compared to Delta or the original coronavirus. In studies on mice and hamsters, Omicron produced infections limited to the upper airways including the nose, throat and windpipe, but lungs were largely spared. As a result, the infection is less severe, highlighting why we are likely seeing less deaths from this variant of the coronavirus. The severe shortness of breath, chest pain and loss of taste or smell characteristic of previous variants is not reported in Omicron patients.
Earlier studies from November 2020 show previous COVID-19 variants causing irreversible lung damage and scarring upon infection. Because Omicron does not replicate as well in the lungs, it has a much lower chance of causing permanent damage, and thus does not result in as many severe hospitalizations. Though these results may seem promising, the large majority of early Omicron infections were young people already less susceptible to severe illness from the virus. Other groups affected already had significant immunity from vaccinations or previous exposure to COVID-19, meaning the decrease in deaths we’re seeing might not be entirely reflective of the true dangers of the variant. Though college students are recovering more quickly from Omicron, that does not mean that we can’t spread this variant to other high-risk members of the Emory community.
Another recent study from researchers at the University of Hong Kong in humans reinforced the theory that Omicron has faster and enhanced viral replication efficiency in the upper airways but slower spread within the lungs. This can be an indication as to why the new variant may seem less severe than Delta or the original variant, as it doesn’t cause the same chronic effects of other variants. Regardless, if the virus replicates faster in the upper airways, it can linger in the throat and nose for longer and has a much greater likelihood of being transmitted into the surrounding air and invading new hosts. Additionally, Omicron’s increased ability to evade antibodies of vaccinated individuals compared to other variants can be another explanation for its rapid spread. Omicron patients also report coughing, congestion, fatigue and a runny nose, symptoms shared by any other cold or flu-like illness that can spread around this time. Because the new variant spreads quickly and is fairly indiscriminable from other seasonal illnesses, Emory students must continue to get tested, wear their masks and properly isolate themselves if infected.
Though COVID-19 related deaths have decreased significantly since vaccines became available to the public, nearly a quarter million people have died in the U.S. during the past eight months. The daily case average has increased by 202% in the last two weeks, along with a 30% increase in hospitalizations. Although many Americans are vaccinated and have received boosters, COVID-19 remains an imminent threat. Young people are still vaccinated at lower rates compared to other groups. Further, hospitals in states like Rhode Island continue to struggle with staffing shortages and decreased bed availability in their emergency rooms. A small percentage of Emory students, faculty and staff remain unvaccinated, and to protect those individuals, we must continue to wear masks and social distance appropriately.
If you’re currently not vaccinated and do not have a compelling reason to forgo the immunization, get your vaccine to help others in imminent need of care receive the treatment they rightfully deserve.
Omicron is undeniably powerful. Doctors, nurses, PAs and other clinicians wearing their masks religiously and maintaining proper social distancing protocol are being infected at tremendous rates. Several physicians I know, including family members, have tested positive, leaving patients worried about their own health and unable to access the care they need.
This past year has provided us with invaluable tools to protect ourselves from the coronavirus. However, we can’t deny that there will be more variants of the coronavirus, and with limited information being released, we still need to remain alert and follow public health guidelines. Though three weeks of virtual classes may seem unnecessary, it may be all we need to avoid the peak in Omicron cases nationally and return to an in-person semester.
For the sake of your peers and for a chance to have a more normal school year, take this remote period seriously. Limit your social interactions to those who you know are being safe during this time. Take precautions such as wearing your mask properly indoors and staying home if you’re feeling ill. This may seem like a painful reminder of March 2020, but the sooner we take this peak seriously, the faster we can control this outbreak.
Sara Khan (23C) is from Fairfax, Virginia.