By Brendan O’Brien, Lisa Shumaker and Barbara Goldberg
A growing number of U.S. colleges and universities were moving final exams online and cancelling non-essential gatherings as the rapidly spreading Omicron coronavirus variant sent people in droves to medical clinics to be tested in scenes reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic.
Many schools were reassessing campus policies as confirmed cases of the Omicron variant turned up in at least 36 states, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said at a briefing on Wednesday.
The Delta variant remains responsible for the vast majority of cases, she added.
Cornell University in upstate New York was reporting a surge even though 97% of students and staff are vaccinated. The Ivy League school had 276 new COVID cases on Monday alone, boosting this week’s totals so far to new 883 new COVID cases.
Students at New Jersey’s Princeton University will take all finals remotely starting on Thursday. The school ordered the cancellation of all indoor gatherings with food, and those where face coverings cannot be worn, effective from Thursday to Jan. 7, the university’s dean Jill Dolan said in a statement.
New York University in New York City canceled all “non-essential” gatherings and events. Provost Katherine Fleming said in a statement on Wednesday that data from a testing program had shown a considerable acceleration in the rate of new cases.
“It’s not a cause for alarm, but it is a cause for concern, caution, and appropriate actions,” she said, adding that the school is strongly encouraging final exams be taken online.
COVID hospitalizations have risen about 10% over the last seven days, according to a Reuters tally. Long lines of people waiting to be tested have formed outside sites including medical clinics in New York City and other parts of the country.
U.S. cases have held fairly steady over the past week with the country averaging 120,000 new cases each day and 1,300 deaths. The United States leads the world in the daily average number of new infections reported, accounting for one in every 5 infections reported worldwide each day.
There have been 50,318,986 infections and 803,203 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the country since the pandemic began.
Urging Americans to get booster shots, top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said an additional dose of currently available COVID-19 vaccines work against the Omicron variant of the coronavirus and there appears to be no need for variant-specific boosters.
Earlier this month, DePaul University in Chicago told students that the first two weeks of winter quarter from Jan. 3 to Jan. 15 will be held online.
Last week Middlebury College in Vermont abruptly canceled in-person classes and events for its 3,200 students after receiving 34 new cases.
“While many of the new cases we have identified appear to be connected, occurring in clusters among people who socialize together, an increase in the prevalence of COVID-19 increases the likelihood of broader community transmission,” Middlebury officials said in a statement, noting that 99% of the school’s 3,200 students are vaccinated.
Other schools, like Northeastern University in Boston, have recently installed new booster requirements while some schools such as Tulane University have reinstated mask mandates.