As the spring 2022 semester begins Monday, rising cases of the omicron variant of COVID-19 may impact the new school year.
UCF President Alexander Cartwright said in an email Tuesday the university has no recent changes regarding mask mandates or in-person class schedules.
"Initial reports suggest that this wave of the virus will be shorter in duration, and most who are fully vaccinated and boosted have a reduced risk of severe illness or hospitalization," Cartwright said in the email. "
The current guidelines reflect what UCF has been implementing since the school returned to a fully operational campus in the fall: expecting masks indoors, strongly encouraging vaccinations and offering COVID testing.
The only change since the fall semester will be that UCF is asking professors to remove attendance requirements for classes for the first few weeks, according to a press release. This change is to encourage students, faculty and staff to stay home if they feel sick.
In the release, Interim Provost Michael Johnson said UCF believes this is only a short-term request and attendance requirements can return as usual later in the semester.
"During this time, please make an extra effort to make course information available to absent students so they can remain in your courses," Johnson said in the announcement.
Florida’s cases have risen exponentially over the holiday season with an increase of 26.5%, a total of 298,455 cases, as of Thursday, according to the Florida Department of Health. However, the data shows omicron death numbers are significantly lower, with a case fatality rate of 1.5% over the past week, whereas the original COVID-19 virus had a fatality rate of 3-4%.
Omicron is also 50% less likely to cause hospitalizations when compared to the delta variant, according to a study by the U.K Health Security Agency.
Dr. Michael Deichen, associate vice president of Student Health Services, said the main concern with the omicron variant will be continuing to provide services at UCF. With the rise in cases this could cause more essential employees to miss work, disrupting campus life.
"We are going to face a different challenge with absenteeism ... It could be a lot of people at the university sick," Deichen said. "I’m more focused on that than I am on the absolute health risk."
Even with the rise in the state, UCF cannot call the shots to go completely virtual again or require masks as the Florida Board of Governors has that jurisdiction, Deichen said.
According to the FDH, Orange County is at a positivity rate of 32.16%, and testing lines can be miles long, with people lining up at early hours of the morning and some students and residents reporting to have waited anywhere from four to eight hours to get tested. Even at UCF, the Garage A test site was said to have wait times of six hours or more and to have been running out of tests.
At a press conference Monday, Florida Surgeon General Joseph Lapado discussed the testing issues.
“We are going to be working to unwind this testing psychology that our federal leadership has managed to unfortunately get most of the country in over the past two years,” Lapado said.
The solution Lapado proposes: less testing, less problems. But Lapado’s response to the problem of long tests lines had angered some local Florida representatives, such as Rep. Anna Eskamani of District 47, which covers the UCF Downtown campus.
“Getting a test provides a clear path of your next steps & empowers you to keep yourself & the people you care about safe. It’s not fear driven, it’s about personal responsibility — which I consider important,” Eskamani tweeted.
For most people, a negative test can get them back to work. However, experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have changed COVID isolation guidelines, reducing the previous 10-day quarantine period to only five days if the person infected is asymptomatic. After leaving quarantine, people should continue to wear a mask for the next 5 days.
“It will help sustain the university. I think this is the advantage,” Deichen said about the new CDC guidelines.
Even as case numbers are rising, Deichen said he still remains hopeful. He has studied previous pandemics and other viruses and, in his expert opinion, he said, when a virus mutates into something like omicron, more people will build some immunity, leading to future COVID viruses becoming less dangerous over time.
"This looks like a new paradigm," Deichen said. "The virus mutates into a less dangerous form that is more infectious. That is what it feels like we are having, so I hope this represents the final chapter of the pandemic."
Any UCF student, faculty or staff member feeling symptoms or who might have been exposed to COVID-19 should contact the UCF COVID line at 407-823-2509.
UCF also encourages students and faculty to book appointments at the Garage A testing site by calling 855-282-4860.
Public Information Officer Courtney Gilmartin of UCF said in an email interview students are encouraged to check their Knights email for additional updates.