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COVID-19 Cases Surge on Campus and in DC Amidst New Variant Concerns

Amid a rise in COVID-19 cases at Howard, and in D.C. at large, concerns about on-campus masking mandates, new BA.2.86 variant and preventive measures also rise. Howard biology professor and COVID-19 researcher doesn’t think a mandate is necessary yet.

A man sitting at a bus stop with a mask on in Columbia Heights on Sept. 8. (Keith Golden Jr/The Hilltop)

Shortly into the beginning of the Fall 2023 semester, COVID-19 cases spiked both on Howard’s campus and in the general D.C. region. 

The current surge of cases in the District is still small compared to the surges of 2020, 2021, and early 2022, according to data provided by D.C. Public Health. For the week of Aug. 26, the weekly case rate was 20.6%, and the overall community transmission level was categorized as low

However, many places stopped recording COVID-19 data after the public health emergency ended in May and states weren’t required to report new cases to the CDC, according to NPR. Public libraries and senior centers in D.C. stopped offering free test kits in February, and COVID-19 testing centers shut down in March, according to the Public Health website, meaning that tests aren’t as available to the general public.

A new COVID-19 variant – BA.2.86 – has recently been identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a variant of concern due to the amount of mutations it carries. “The newest variant has been identified in five states in the U.S. so far but is believed to be growing,” Mighty said. “It is too early to characterize this variant as to its potential to be more harmful than previous variants. The CDC is following closely and we will as well.”

In an email to The Hilltop, Senior Vice President for Health Affairs Dr. Hugh Mighty said that the university has “seen a trend of an uptick in reported cases.” Though Mighty did not specify the exact number of COVID-19 cases reported, he said that “compared to the last school year, the uptick in cases is lower.”

When it comes to precautions to take on campus, students and staff have varying ideas on how to protect themselves. Tayess John, a senior psychology minor from Charlotte, North Carolina, believes that more mitigations should be put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 on campus. She says that even though she continues to wear her mask, it doesn’t help because many other people aren’t wearing one themselves. 

“One-way masking does not help long-term. I know because I’ve gotten COVID-19 twice from helping out during graduation last year and from doing a study abroad fair,” John said. “I was the only one wearing my mask. It’s just not smart for Howard to not start out with the mask mandate at the beginning of the year.” 

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As the university transitioned back to campus at the beginning of the fall 2021 semester, Howard offered free polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing every week at six locations on campus, and students could reserve an appointment through the Bison Safe App. Howard has since reduced opportunities for students to receive a COVID-19 test.

According to a COVID-19 update memo released last month, testing for students is currently offered in the Student Health Center, with the COVID-19 center in room 3600 of the Hospital Towers building reserved for testing staff and faculty. 

Myles Boyd, a sophomore supply chain major from the DMV area by way of Smyrna, Georgia, has some concerns about the rise in COVID-19 cases but doesn’t think a mask mandate is needed just yet. 

“I feel like Howard should place a mask mandate should the numbers continue to rise within the coming weeks,” Boyd said. “It might just be a spike because of everyone traveling and coming to campus, so maybe it’s something that can be managed pretty quickly with general practice.” 

With the COVID-19 resurgence on campus, some students are beginning to wear masks again. (Illustration by Jabari Courtney)

College of Arts and Sciences biology professor Hemayet Ullah has been working on two research projects centering on COVID-19 since the laboratory opened in 2021. 

Ullah has been working on the testing aspect of the virus, along with working towards stopping the replication of the virus in another research project.

“Detection is all about the positive strand, negative RNA only produces when a virus replicates. The positive is always there whether they’re replicating or not replicating…so what they’re detecting may not be a light virus it may be a residual, dead, or broken down virus that the body has taken care of,” Ullah said regarding his “detection” research.

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As a teacher of a genetics course, Ullah has nearly 200 in-person students he teaches this semester. Ullah, with the help of the biology department, has instilled preventative measures in his class, including air purifiers, ventilation throughout the room and recommending that students wear their masks. 

Ullah recommends that other departments take these steps in their own in-person classes. “It would be very good if they could do it in all of the places, if you have good ventilation your chance of getting COVID-19 significantly goes down,” he said.

Although he does recommend wearing masks indoors, he does not believe with the new variant it is necessary for Howard to place a mask mandate for the Howard community just yet.

“It has not come to that level of concern because the new variant of the whole country — for the last few weeks — only seven or eight has been formed so far and we don’t know yet whether this is more severe than the previous one – but we know that they can break through more often,” Ullah said.

Per Howard’s most recent COVID-19 update, masking is optional and members of the community are encouraged to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. According to Mighty,  boosters for the Howard community will be available in late September. “We will begin to distribute as soon as we have it,” he said. “In order to reach as many students and staff as possible, we will host vaccine events on the campus as we have done in the past.” 

Copy edited by Alana Matthew

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