Emory University shuttles will return to full capacity and permit standing riders on May 2. Masks will still be required to ride, according to Executive Director for COVID-19 Response and Recovery Amir St. Clair.
Shuttles have been operating at full seated capacity since last summer, but standing riders have not been allowed in about two years, St. Clair said. The University began limiting shuttle capacity in March 2020.
The decision follows a nation-wide reduction in COVID-19 transportation protocols. Following a court order, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on April 18 that masks are no longer mandated on public transportation conveyances and at transportation hubs, although the CDC did not support the decision.
The CDC originally aimed to extend the transportation mask mandate, which went into place in early 2021, to May 3. However, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle of Florida struck the mask requirement down, forcing the mandate to expire.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) is appealing the federal court ruling, as the CDC still deems it “necessary” for people to wear masks on transportation to protect against COVID-19. In an April 20 statement announcing the DOJ’s appeal, the CDC wrote that “this is a lawful order, well within CDC’s legal authority to protect public health.”
The appeal comes about two months after the CDC’s Feb. 25 announcement that masks would not be required on buses or vans operated by public or private K-12 school systems. Universities are not required to follow the decision.
St. Clair and Executive Director of Student Health Services Sharon Rabinovitz both reinforced that reduced COVID-19 regulations on shuttles does not mean that the pandemic is over.
According to the University’s COVID-19 dashboard, 114 students, faculty and staff tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 10 days, while only 41 cases were reported the week of April 16. This is about a 178% increase in cases.
“This uptick in cases really highlights that it’s not over, it’s changed,” Rabinovitz said. “People have the agency to continue to protect themselves and those that they are with, their friends and family.”
St. Clair said he anticipated the increase, which he does not classify as a spike. He explained that case numbers are only one metric to measure COVID-19, and other factors have remained steady.
“What is important to note is that at this time, our metrics for disease severity, isolation and quarantine space, healthcare strain, those continue to be moderate and below established thresholds,” St. Clair said.
The rise in cases is largely due to the prevalence of the highly transmissible BA.2 subvariant of the Omicron variant, St. Clair speculated. BA.2 was first discovered in the United States in December 2021 and accounted for about 68% of U.S. cases reported in the week ending on April 23, according to the CDC.
The American Medical Association reports that the BA.2 subvariant has genetic mutations that may make it more difficult to distinguish from the Delta variant using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, earning it the nickname “stealth Omicron.”
St. Clair and Rabinovitz also suggested that the cases could be due to increased travel and gatherings at the end of the semester, as well as loosened COVID-19 protocols, both at Emory and across the country.
Despite the rise in cases, St. Clair said Emory is prepared to host a full season of programs and summer camps this year. He stipulated that certain schools within Emory may still elect to limit their events, and COVID-19 regulations will depend on the type of program.
“We will continue to monitor and assess any changes over the summer should we need to, but ultimately we want to support a full slate of programming and do so in a safe and healthy manner,” St. Clair said.
The University will be discussing changing its operating status meter — which color-codes campus COVID-19 protocols as green, yellow, orange and red depending on the severity of cases — according to St. Clair.
He explained that the current operating model is largely based on “crisis response,” and the University will likely shift to a model that is more sustainable in the long-term.
“We still need to be aware and we still may have protocols in place, but we do not need to have a heightened response,” St. Clair said. “We don’t need to have significant restrictions in place.”
A decision regarding any changes to the University’s COVID-19 operating model will likely be shared over the summer, St. Clair said.
The University will also monitor national guidance for second booster doses. On March 29, the CDC announced that immunocompromised individuals and people over 50 years old who received the initial booster vaccine at least four months ago are eligible for a second dosage.
“Vaccines are effective, but they start to wane in terms of efficacy over time, and sometimes more so for certain populations or for certain health conditions,” St. Clair said. “There has been the need to develop and support and administer a booster shot because of that waning immunity, but also because the virus continues to evolve.”
If the CDC recommends the second booster for the general population in the future, St. Clair said the University will rely on national public health guidance, as well as input from Emory epidemiologists, to decide if students will be required to get the vaccine.
St. Clair added that the University will continue to require initial and first booster vaccinations for all returning and new students.