By Barry Waldman
For now, Zoom is a distant memory for the Fall semester of graduate school. But wait a couple of weeks and that could change, thanks to the Delta variant and America’s vaccination reticence.
Already as this is being written, the Delta variant of the Coronavirus is running roughshod through the nation again. The incidence of COVID infection has bounced back to pre-vaccination levels and is rising at an unprecedented rate.
Hospitalizations and deaths from COVID remain muted, largely because so many Americans are vaccinated. But vaccinated people appear to be just as contagious as unvaccinated people when infected with the Delta variant, which is more contagious than the common cold. That is a recipe for a rebound epidemic.
Younger People at Risk This Time
Moreover, unlike the original Coronavirus, the Delta variant wreaks havoc with young people. Trident Medical Center reported at the end of July that patients in their 20s comprised nearly one-third of all Covid admissions. This is due, in part, to lower vaccination rates among younger people.
“Individuals that did not get vaccinated are most likely to be infected and hospitalized. Those hospitalized with COVID are younger, unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, and more likely to be White, than [compared to] a year ago when non-Whites were disproportionately affected,” said Dr. Lee Biggs, Chief Medical Officer at Trident Medical Center.
“If younger people think they’re not at risk, they need to know how the virus works. It targets those most vulnerable, and right now, that is the unvaccinated.”Dr. Lee Biggs, Cheif Medical Officer – Trident Medical Center
Studies in Canada, Singapore, and Scotland suggest that unvaccinated individuals infected with the Delta variant are 3-4x as likely to be hospitalized and 2x as likely to die than with previous variants.
Low Vaccination Rates = Rebound Epidemic
Worse yet, the vaccination rate among adults in the Charleston region is low. Only 42% of adults in Berkeley County are vaccinated. Just 47% in Dorchester. (It’s 60% in Charleston, still slightly below the national average, which itself is still well below the 70% threshold for herd immunity levels.)
The nation’s inability to reach herd immunity despite nearly universal access to vaccines has provided the opening that the Delta variant needed to emerge and threaten lives. With herd immunity – i.e., significantly higher vaccination rates – the virus would not have been able to replicate and spread.
What Does That Mean for the Fall Semester?
Many businesses have begun requiring employees either to be vaccinated or wear masks and get tested repeatedly if they do not. Municipal governments are beginning to re-institute mask ordinances for public indoor spaces.
Universities within South Carolina may be constrained from ordering vaccines or masks. The University of South Carolina, whose interim president is an epidemiologist, imposed a mask mandate for in-person classes in the Fall, only to be overruled by the state’s Attorney General in a controversial opinion that was immediately challenged in court. The resulting uncertainty within the government has led to universities like the College of Charleston, The Citadel, and Clemson University to strongly encourage masks, but not require them.
The Citadel and College of Charleston offer free vaccinations on campus, and CofC is offering nearly daily, free COVID tests. The Citadel is requiring both graduate and undergraduate students to get tested for COVID as close to August 4th as possible, with proof of negative tests provided to the university.
Unlike other schools, The Citadel is requiring masks in classrooms. Its website also says, “The #1 regulation: if you are having any COVID-19 symptoms, stay away from campus and alert your TAC, the Admissions Office (for freshmen) or The Citadel Graduate College Office.”
For now, it appears that virtual attendance, in-person classes, and masks are all on the table for the Fall 2021 semester. Stay tuned for further developments.