UB has no plans to reinstate a mask mandate on campus unless a new COVID-19 variant of concern emerges, according to Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the UB Department of Medicine.
“If a new variant shows up and sort of erodes our immunity, but you just have [the symptoms of] a mild common cold, then we’re probably OK with that,” Russo said. “But if it evades that immunity, and people are getting sick and landing in the hospital and dying… that would probably be the one thing that would bring back a variety of mandates and more aggressive public health measures.”
Such a variant of concern hasn’t been identified at this time, Russo said.
On-campus cases have climbed moderately in the six weeks since UB ended its indoor mask mandate on March 5, according to SUNY’s COVID-19 dashboard. The 14-day rolling positivity rate decreased from 0.95% on March 7, two days after the end of the mask mandate, to 0.24% on March 17, but the rate has since increased to 1.85% as of April 18. The positivity rate among students, 2.02%, is nearly double that of employees, which sits at 1.16%.
UB has reported 90 positive cases in the past 14 days, although that number is likely an underestimate due to the prevalence of at-home testing.
Some estimates have found that only 7% of COVID-19 cases are being detected in the U.S., meaning rates may actually be 14.5 times higher than reported, according to CNN. Many communicable diseases, such as the flu, are routinely underdetected.
“We knew there would be some increase — nothing like, of course, the Omicron wave, nothing like the early wave, because our immunity is so much better from the earlier Omicron infection and vaccination,” Russo said, citing spring break, St. Patrick’s Day and loosening restrictions as reasons for the increase. “It’s not really that concerning… What’s maybe driven them to a slightly higher level of infections than I was hoping for is BA.2, [which] is a sub-variant of Omicron that is about 30%, maybe as much as 50%, more infectious [than BA.1].”
Cases are likely to peak in the next week following gatherings during the Easter, Passover and Ramadan holidays, and then be followed by a downward swing in May as the weather gets warmer, Russo said.
The possibility of a permanent end to mask mandates on campus represent a critical shift in the university’s pandemic strategy as it moves from focusing on suppressing cases to reducing severe illness, long COVID-19, hospitalizations and death. In accordance with those new goals, the university has replaced mask mandates and physical distancing requirements with vaccine mandates, educational campaigns, an emphasis on “personal responsibility” and surveillance testing of the unvaccinated and partially vaccinated, Russo said.
“Early on, we thought we would be able to prevent most infections with the early variants, but now since Omicron has shown up, we appreciate that we can no longer do that,” Russo said. “I think we have to accept we’re going to have some infections and we’re going to have bumps in infections at certain times of year. And I think eventually this virus will sort of settle into a seasonal respiratory virus, similar to influenza.”
Frederick Kowal, the president of United University Professions, the union that represents SUNY faculty and professionals, said in a statement that it’s “necessary and prudent” for SUNY to mandate masks again.
“With COVID-19 cases on the rise across the state due to the spread of at least two
sub-variants [BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1] of the contagious Omicron strain, putting indoor mask mandates back in place temporarily will help stem the spread quickly,” Kowal said. “SUNY should act immediately in this regard.”
Masks are still required on UB buses and shuttles, but the university’s Health and Safety Committee will discuss the future of that requirement at their next meeting, university spokesperson John DellaContrada said. That discussion follows a federal judge’s ruling declaring a federal mask mandate for public transportation was unlawful, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority lifted its mask mandate for trains, buses and airports on Tuesday, according to The Buffalo News.
Students and guests attending commencement ceremonies — slated to take place between April 29 and May 22 — will no longer be required to provide proof of vaccination and won’t be required to wear masks, according to UB’s Health and Safety Guidelines. The university had originally planned to require proof of vaccination.
Erie County had a 7-day positivity rate of 14.4% as of April 7, up from a low of 1.9% on March 10, according to Erie County’s COVID-19 dashboard.
The 7-day average of new cases in New York State has increased steadily since the 2022 low of 1,639 on March 14, according to The New York Times. The 7-day average was 5,909 on April 18, far lower than the 2022 high of 73,815 on Jan. 10 during the Omicron wave.
Hospitalization rates in New York State have increased by 30% in the last 14 days, reaching a daily average of 1,496 on April 17. Hospitalizations haven’t increased nearly as much as caseloads, Russo said.
Grant Ashley is a senior news/features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Grant Ashley is the managing editor at The Spectrum. He is a political science and (mediocre) Spanish double major. He enjoys taking long bike rides, baking with his parents’ ingredients and recreating Bob Ross paintings in crayon. He can be found on Twitter @Grantrashley.