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Pitt has not yet made any changes to return-to-campus plans for the spring 2022 semester, but could do so by Jan. 3 as worries rise due to the highly transmissible Omicron COVID-19 variant, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in a Friday campuswide email.
“Everyone should be prepared for possible adjustments to our return-to-campus plans as the pandemic and the risks associated with it continue to evolve,” Gallagher said.
Scientists first detected the Omicron variant around Thanksgiving, and found it to be more transmissible than Delta, the current COVID-19 variant which is dominant. They have said this puts Omicron on track to be the new dominant variant in the near future, adding further stress to a health care system already facing a surge in Delta cases. A large surge in cases linked to Omicron recently struck Cornell University, leading to a campus shutdown as it prepared for finals week.
Gallagher noted that vaccination — with a boosting third dose — is the best way to protect against the virus. Scientists have found that individuals with a third dose are at less risk for severe disease and hospitalization due to Omicron compared to those with only two doses.
“While vaccination is not a foolproof mechanism for preventing infection against Omicron, emerging evidence suggests that COVID-19 vaccines — and, in particular, boosters — do play a role in preventing people from becoming seriously ill once infected,” Gallagher said.
Pitt’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate took effect Dec. 6, requiring all students and employees to have a completed series of doses of an approved vaccine. Roughly 900 exemptions to the mandate have been approved by the University as of Nov. 19, for medical, religious or moral reasons.
A University spokesperson declined Friday to share the options under consideration by University officials.
Robin Kear, the Faculty Assembly president, said though many are “tired of this pandemic and its disruptive effects,” the community “still must follow the scientific data and medical recommendations regarding the newest variant.” She added that faculty are “open to discussion on what keeps our campus safe and healthy” in light of Omicron.
Harshitha Ramanan, the Student Government Board president, did not respond to a request for comment.
Gallagher said he, like many, found these latest developments in the pandemic to be “unwelcome,” especially as most students have finished finals and started winter break.
“We all need this break, and I hope that you take the opportunity, over the next few weeks, to rest, recharge and reconnect with your family and loved ones,” Gallagher said. “Thankfully, our community has proven to be incredibly resilient and strong, and we will get through this next phase of the pandemic together.”