New COVID-19 variant spreads across Pa. and N.J., students’ thoughts on returning to campus

Written By Erin Yudt, Editor-Elect

As students, staff and faculty return to campus after the winter break, a new COVID-19 variant has been spreading across the country. 

COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania and New Jersey increased after the winter holidays as the latest variant of the virus became more prevalent in the region, according to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

A new omicron subvariant, XBB.1.5, appears to be more transmissible than earlier forms of COVID and as of the end of December accounted for more than 32% of the cases in the region that includes Pennsylvania. It is far more common in New York and New Jersey, where it accounts for 72% of cases, according to the CDC. 

Nationally, COVID cases are down slightly compared with two weeks ago, according to the New York Times’ COVID tracker, though hospitalizations rose 12% in the same time frame. More than 450 Americans a day are dying of the virus.

Throughout the pandemic, new variants that are more transmissible and more immune resistant have consistently outperformed earlier strains of the virus, but have still been similar enough that the vaccines prevent serious illness and death.

In a series of tweets Wednesday, Ashish Jha, the White House COVID response coordinator, described the variant as spreading at a “stunning” rate. Just a few weeks ago, he said, XBB.1.5 accounted for just 4% of the country’s COVID cases. Now it causes about 40% of cases. It’s unclear whether XBB.1.5 causes more severe illness than other variants, Jha said.

“If you had an infection before July OR your last vaccine was before bivalent update in September,” Jha tweeted, “your protection against an XBB.1.5 infection is probably not that great.”

Nationally, just 15% of Americans 5 or older received a dose of the bivalent booster dose.

Jha said that new data on how well vaccines neutralize the new variant will be released “soon.”

According to Point Park’s campus dashboard, two new COVID cases have been identified, from data obtained on Monday, making the new cumulative total 159 cases since August 1. The dashboard will also no longer be updated daily, but every two weeks, leaving students with mixed reactions.

Julianne Bailey, a sophomore legal studies major, feels that this data should be reported more frequently as the semester starts.

“As people are coming back from all parts of the country, or even out of country, I think the school should at least notify us more than once every two weeks about cases,” Bailey said. “I just feel like everyone has forgotten about it [COVID].”

As far as the new COVID variant, Bailey is “not too worried just yet.”

“I had no idea that the new variant was a thing,” Bailey said. “How deadly is it? What are the symptoms? I’m not as concerned right now with the weather being warmer, but if it was a full-on snow storm and there was more information about it, then I might be more worried.”

Kassady Burke, a sophomore behavioral sciences major, feels similarly. 

“I am a little nervous about everyone returning and traveling, but nowhere near the same as last year,” Burke said. “I am a little surprised the school didn’t send something like a reminder for safe traveling, but we’ll just see how these next few weeks go, then determine if I am concerned or not about new variants.” 

Allegheny County’s community level for COVID cases is currently at medium, according to the CDC. Their website recommends that “if you are at high risk of getting very sick, wear a high-quality mask or respirator (e.g., N95) when indoors in public, if you have household or social contact with someone at high risk for getting very sick, consider self-testing to detect infection before contact, and consider wearing a high-quality mask when indoors with them, stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines, including recommended booster doses, maintain ventilation improvements, avoid contact with people who have suspected or confirmed COVID-19, follow recommendations for isolation if you have suspected or confirmed COVID-19, follow the recommendations for what to do if you are exposed to someone with COVID-19” under the level of medium. 

The university continues to follow CDC guidelines. Should any Point Park community member test positive or be considered a close contact of someone who has tested positive, the university asks that you immediately contact the Student Health Center at 412-392-3800.