Students deemed “fully vaccinated” under revised university campus health and safety guidelines will no longer be required to undergo surveillance testing, wear masks or provide proof of vaccination, the university announced Aug. 31.
The university will also no longer be operating designated quarantine residential halls for students infected with COVID-19.
Masks will also remain optional “in most campus settings” after the university nixed its mask mandate and proof of vaccination requirements for on-campus events. Masks remain mandatory when students utilize campus transportation or enter health service spaces.
UB is also asking students to “remain vigilant” as it looks to grapple with the emergent monkeypox threat and regular flu season throughout the semester.
Thomas Russo, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the UB Department of Medicine, echoed that sentiment, warning against public health complacency even as the university rolls back previous COVID-19 response measures.
“Even though we want to be done with COVID-19, unfortunately, COVID-19 is not yet finished with us,” Russo said.
Easing on-campus COVID-19 protocols
In keeping with the latest CDC guidance, UB now defines “fully vaccinated” as the completion of a primary COVID vaccination series: either two or three doses in total depending on age group and vaccine product taken.
To account for closing vaccination sites, the university will supply rapid test kits to exempt students free of charge every week. A limited reserve of kits is available for fully vaccinated students who were potentially exposed or symptomatic, the university says.
A newly-minted student health center on Maple Road will also provide off-campus access to rapid COVID-19 testing for symptomatic students. Students looking to visit must schedule appointments beforehand and carry their UB ID and insurance card with them.
UB recommends — but no longer requires — that all eligible students, faculty and staff stay up-to-date with new booster shots as they emerge. Last Wednesday, the FDA approved a new booster approved targeting the rampant omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, the latter of which accounts for 88.6% of U.S. COVID-19 cases, according to the CDC’s Nowcast model.
Students can locate nearby vaccination clinics carrying the new booster at www.vaccines.gov.
Students exposed to the virus must wear a mask and watch for COVID-19 symptoms for 10 days, per the CDC. Those who have symptoms should self-isolate and get tested.
Furthermore, UB is no longer operating designated quarantine residential halls for the fall semester. Instead, students who test positive for COVID-19 must complete UB’s COVID-19 reporting form and continue to self-isolate — either at home or within their assigned on-campus living quarters — for at least five days or until symptoms improve, per the CDC’s isolation guidance.
On-campus residents must also notify Residential Life staff at 716-645-2173 and follow additional isolation and quarantine directives. The university requires that self-isolating and quarantining students wear a mask wherever they travel and order to-go meals via the GET app. Students are also responsible for communicating and coordinating with their professors to make up coursework.
As of Sept. 7, UB has 105 cases of COVID-19 and a 1.20% positivity rate based on a 14-day rolling average, according to SUNY’s COVID-19 dashboard. There are currently 11 students in self-isolation — three students self-isolating off campus and eight students self-isolating on campus.
A community-based response to the monkeypox outbreak
A “preparedness and response plan” is in the works after the university announced in a statement last month that it is “monitoring” CDC advisories and coordinating with SUNY, the Erie County Department of Health (ECDOH) and the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH).
As of Sept. 7, the CDC has reported a total of 21,274 confirmed monkeypox cases in the United States so far.
UB says it is evaluating infection control protocols and equipment, mitigating responses to suspected monkeypox cases and conducting community outreach.
As both local and national experts continue to learn about the monkeypox virus, the university recommends that on-campus community members wash their hands regularly, avoid contact with individuals exhibiting symptoms and to contact healthcare professionals if they notice any symptoms, in accordance with current CDC advisement.
Monkeypox symptoms include a long-lasting rash alongside flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, muscle aches, chills, swollen lymph nodes and fatigue that can last for weeks, according to the CDC.
The CDC suggests the use of EVP-registered disinfectants and protective equipment to mitigate person-to-person transmission of the virus via rashes or infected body fluids. Prolonged face-to-face contact and respiratory secretions are also vehicles for transmission.
“Anyone who develops a new, unexplained rash on any part of the body should seek medical attention immediately and avoid contact with others,” Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said in a statement.
Erie County is currently rolling out a two-dose JYNNEOS monkeypox vaccine on a limited eligibility basis following FDA approval and federal efforts to accelerate vaccine distribution in August.
“With a limited supply of monkeypox vaccine available, we are reserving these doses for residents at highest risk of infection,” Burstein said.
Only Erie County residents at high risk of exposure to monkeypox, including members of the LGBTQ community and any residents who engaged in skin-to-skin contact within “a social network experiencing monkeypox activity” in the past 14 days are eligible for the monkeypox vaccine, according to Erie County vaccination guidelines.
But Burstein warns that the scope of the monkeypox virus itself remains indiscriminate nonetheless.
“While many of those affected in the current global outbreaks are gay, bisexual, or other men who have sex with men, the virus does not know its host’s sexual orientation,” Burstein said. “Anyone in close skin-to-skin contact with someone who has monkeypox can get the illness.”
With the semester well underway, UB says it will continue to enforce compliance with public health behavior expectations. Students noncompliant with public health directives on campus will be reminded to comply by university officials and staff. Continued noncompliance will be met with “forcible removal” from the premises by UPD and other appropriate disciplinary action, according to the university.
Even as unbuckling COVID-19 restrictions shifts public attention to yet another emergent threat in monkeypox, Russo reiterates learned lessons of vigilance and adherence to campus health and safety guidelines in rekindling normalcy on campus.
“The COVID pandemic has educated all of us on how to keep safe,” Russo said. “Let’s put that knowledge to work so that we can have a safe, fun and productive fall semester.”
Kyle Nguyen is a senior news/features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kyle Nguyen is a senior news/features editor at The Spectrum.