When St. Olaf students left for spring break the week of March 27, the College sat at a yellow COVID-19 alert level that came following a campus outbreak, which caused up to 200 students to go into isolation. The community has now been at a green alert level for over two weeks after the COVID-19 Response Team announced a re-loosening of restrictions on April 5. Students, faculty, and staff alike are hopeful for a green rest of the spring that would continue a level of normalcy not seen during the tumultuous first half of the semester.
The COVID-19 Response Team, like previous holiday breaks, conducted baseline testing after each scheduled break for students in order to track possible cases, but after spring break no such testing was scheduled.
Three days after students arrived back from spring break, the campus moved to the green alert level. This meant that for all students, faculty, and staff, testing would be provided for those with symptoms, masks would become optional indoors for all, and visitors up-to-date on their vaccinations would be allowed on campus.
“As we have learned more about how COVID-19 — and specifically the Omicron variant — spreads in our community, we have found that focusing on testing symptomatic individuals and close contacts of positive cases is our most effective means of identifying positive cases and limiting the spread of the virus on campus,” wrote Campus COVID Response Lead Enoch Blazis in an email response to questions from the Messenger.
Blazis explained that the College has found that those with vaccine-induced immunity have milder symptoms before “testing positive and before they’re highly infectious,” allowing for fewer severe cases and shorter isolation periods.
“The campus community has been extraordinarily good at seeking out testing when people have symptoms and this has allowed us to quickly identify anyone potentially infected with Omicron without having to test everyone in the community,” Blazis wrote.
He continued, “The College remains committed to providing easy and timely access to rapid testing on campus because it remains a valuable tool as part of our COVID-19 management strategy.”
The rise of a new possible Omicron variant in parts of the country has kept the Response Team on alert, according to Blazis.
“We know that cases of the BA.2 subvariant are increasing in the Northeastern U.S., and we expect that COVID will still be present in the background,” Blazis wrote. “We will continue to watch out for any spikes that show a rapid increase in positive cases on campus or in the community.”
The unpredictability of new variants means that the rest of the semester is up in the air. But like many others hoping for a “normal” last month on campus, the Response Team remains optimistic.
“My hope, as well as that of the leadership of St. Olaf, is that we have the fullest on-campus experience that we can,” Blazis wrote.
Warmer weather will also open up opportunities for more outdoor events with lower risks of transmission. But the largest indoor event of the year — the President’s Ball that is set to take place April 23 — has caused increased planning between the administration and the student community.
With specific regard to President’s Ball, the Office of Student Activities is collaborating with the COVID-19 Response Team and event organizers to determine appropriate safety measures to allow for an enjoyable experience for all,” Blazis wrote.
Appropriate safety measures are yet to be confirmed but are currently being discussed between the parties. The goal is to keep traditions from pre-COVID times going, according to Blazis, especially for the first-year class, which has yet to experience a “normal” year of college.
While uncertainty remains, there is hope for a normal future world, ready and able to find steady ground.