University Experts, Students React to the Spread of Omicron Variant

Original Article by Abigail Ali at the Technician. Photo credit: Emily Peedin

NC State students start classes this week as omicron, the current dominant COVID-19 variant, spreads across the state. 

Julie Swann, department head of the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, conducts research and educates people on how to improve health and humanitarian systems around the world. Swann said omicron is making its way across North Carolina. 

“Currently, omicron is spreading very quickly across North Carolina and in many communities,” Swann said. “The count of cases is very high, testivity rate is very high and the hospitalization rate is increasing.”

Swann said despite omicron being less severe than previous COVID-19 variants, people should still be aware of its risks. 

“People hear that omicron is mild and think it’s no big deal,” Swann said. “There are two kinds of risk: one risk is to people who are not vaccinated or are not completely boosted. I highly encourage vaccination and boosting to whoever is eligible. The second kind of risk is that our hospital systems become overwhelmed and when that is true, we get negative outcomes for even non-COVID disease, and this year, in January 2022, our hospital systems do not have access to as many employees as they had a year and a half ago.”

Matthew Koci, an associate professor of infectious diseases and immunology, said the speed at which omicron spreads should concern the NC State community. 

“If [omicron] is just twice as infectious as delta, which it might be more than twice as infectious as delta, it can still be 10 times less deadly and kill more people because it moves so much faster,” Koci said. “So, I think people are hearing that it’s not as severe as what they’re used to, and they’re taking that as they don’t have to treat it as seriously as they did the last one.”

Koci said he has not seen people’s behavior reflect the serious nature of omicron. 

“I haven’t necessarily seen the push that drives home the message that this is different this semester than it was last semester,” Koci said. “Whether those [precautions] have been put in place or not hasn’t been communicated, so if it is safe, I don’t know if people feel safe.”

Grant Eubanks, a second-year in interdisciplinary studies, said there’s nothing NC State can do to keep students completely safe, but enforcing COVID-19 safety precautions is helpful. 

“I don’t think anything is going to be enough to keep [students] safe without some risk,” Eubanks said. “I get that we all want to not get this thing, but honestly we got a pretty good compromise with this. I think it’s going to be okay.”

Olivia Howell is a fourth-year studying anthropology and film. She said she was unsure about returning to campus. 

“I’m a little bit hesitant, like I’m going to go back and I’m going to go to class, but it’s a little bit stressful because the data tracking doesn’t look great, so having more and more people come back to campus I feel like is just gonna exacerbate those numbers,” Howell said. “I know if I get COVID, I’ll be fine because I’m fully vaccinated and have had my booster, but keeping us in a close area together I feel like will spread it more to immunocompromised or those who don’t have their vaccinations or whatever may be the case.

The number of positive cases on campus is already going up as students return to class

“We’re already seeing there’s a lot of disease transmission,” Swann said. “I anticipate that continuing for a number of weeks on campus. I know how much students have valued the return to campus and student decisions play a big role in making sure that we can continue in person operations in ways that are safe for students, staff and faculty. Everyone’s decisions make a difference in the pandemic.”

Koci recommends that those eligible for the vaccine should get fully vaccinated and boosted. 

“For students on campus, if you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated,” Koci said. “If you’re not boosted, get boosted. That’ll at least shorten the duration of which you might be contributing to transmission, but also it greatly increases the chances that whatever infection you get will be asymptomatic to mild.”

Koci also said vaccines are more effective in protecting people from severe symptoms than natural immunity. 

“There is ample data to show that the vaccinated are getting milder cases,” Koci said. “The vaccine is keeping you from having the most severe disease you probably would have had without the vaccine, and there’s ample data to suggest and otherwise demonstrate that immunity from the vaccine is superior to natural immunity.” 

Swann recommends people get tested from time to time, even if they are not showing symptoms.

“I make a practice of getting tested periodically, even after getting vaccinated, and I recommend the same to the faculty, staff, and students in my department,” Swann said. “This is important for reducing disease transmission which can help the campus stay in person for learning.”

Howell said she plans to do what she can to stay safe and keep others safe on campus. 

“I’m gonna hopefully buy some N95 masks, if there are any left, and just be really careful,” Howell said. “I’ll wear my masks indoors, if there’s another booster, I’ll get it. I feel like there is not a whole lot that we as students can do about what the University is doing, but hopefully as a student body we can help put pressure on the University and government to allow us to have a safer learning environment.”

Eubanks said NC State is doing a good job making sure students are taken care of. 

“Honestly, the best thing the school can do is foster an environment of a lot of rest and taking care of yourself and exercising, and they do a pretty good job of that,” Eubanks said.

Swann said the future of COVID-19 on campus is unclear.

“People sometimes ask, ‘Is this going to keep happening every semester?’ and so we don’t know for sure what will happen,” Swann said. “It is possible that this is the last big surge for some period of time. I anticipate that we will integrate some risk management into our daily lives for disease outbreaks of many types including hand washing, mask wearing or awareness of disease outbreaks. We could see other variants in the future, but things could get better in the short to medium term after this wave passes.”

Koci said omicron should pass through faster than the delta variant of COVID-19 did. 

“The one sort of good news is as fast as this thing moves, this wave should end faster too,” Koci said. “So instead of lasting three months like the last two waves, this could take three to six weeks. At some point it’ll run out of people to make ill and [the number of cases] will come back down.”

View NC State’s COVID-19 Updates page to stay informed on the status of COVID-19 on campus. 

Grant Eubanks is an employee at WKNC – part of NC State Student Media.