CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, Ill. (WCIA) – Masks are back on the University of Illinois campus as students begin the second week of classes. A memo from university chancellor Robert Jones sent to students, faculty and staff Sunday night strongly recommended the use of a “high-quality face covering” in the classroom “over the next several weeks.”
“For the next three to four weeks, it’s very important that everyone takes care of themselves,” McKinley Health Center Director Awais Vaid said Monday.
The university’s 7-day positivity rate approached 15% on Monday and almost 20% of tests taken by university students came back positive. Vaid said that’s similar to the rate schools saw when students returned in 2020 and 2021.
“This week and next week could be critical for us. That is why there has been a reminder from the chancellor that masks are still very good options,” Vaid continued.
University officials expect cases to peak at that time, the memo said.
“In terms of hospitalizations, in terms of deaths, in terms of ICU admissions, in terms of the health care system being overwhelmed, it’s not doing that,” Vaid said, noting the increase from those in previous years. “But that doesn’t mean people aren’t getting infected.”
“While it’s like, ‘Oh, we still have to wear masks and this stuff is still happening,’ it’s definitely still cool. You never want to be oblivious to what’s going on around here, right? U of I sophomore Elijah Esho said in support of the university’s strong recommendation.
The data showing that the positivity rate has increased is also slightly skewed, Vaid said, because testing is not as available as it was in the past two years.
“So we’re only getting a small picture of what’s going on,” he added.
“Also, as you know, contact tracing has been completely phased out at the state level, very minimal that even happens at the local level.”
Even with limited data, the director and epidemiologist by trade said, “It looks like we’re heading in a direction where we could see a significant volume of cases this week.”
It’s all part of moving into the endemic phase of the coronavirus response, according to Vaid, where we’re learning to live with the virus, rather than disrupt society.
The decision to strongly recommend masks comes from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state guidelines for communities dealing with high rates of transmission. The campus community and Champaign County were both considered high-transmission areas Monday.
“The chancellor has the discretion to mandate it, but, you know, we’ve always tried to be very consistent with federal and local state guidelines,” Vaid added.
The sea of students on campus Monday, whose college experiences were mostly masked, had mixed responses to the recommendation. Less than a third had worn them on the crowded commute between classes, but more said they wore them or would wear them to class.
“I think the masks are pretty symbolic in what they represent this pandemic,” sophomore Sean Liu said. “And the fact that we’re slowly getting rid of it, you know, kind of represents leaving all of that behind.”
“I feel more comfortable just wearing masks,” said simply an elderly man who did not want to be identified by name.
“I liked seeing people and it made you appreciate it more that we were able to take off the masks and get back together with people,” said freshman Tommy Miller, adding that he won’t be wearing a mask in class. He cited antibodies from a recent COVID-19 infection.
“I think overall it tells me that the school wants safety,” Esho concluded.
Saliva-based testing is still available to students at Illini Union. So far the cases have been mostly asymptomatic, Vaid said.
The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District is also strongly recommending that everyone wear a mask in indoor public spaces. The news came today after administrator Julie Pryde said community and campus cases combined rose about 50% in the past week.
NOTICE FROM CUPHD:
The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District (CUPHD) announces that community transmission of COVID-19 in Champaign County is high and strongly recommends that everyone wear a mask when indoors in public spaces. The transmission rate is based on three indicators, which include the rate of new cases per 100,000 population, the percentage of staffed beds occupied by patients with COVID-19, and new admissions with COVID-19 per 100,000 population.
According to Julie Pryde, Administrator of CUPHD, “The number of cases in the community and on campus has increased by about 50% in the last week. Based on previous years’ trends, we are likely to experience higher spreads in the next 10 days. Indoor masking and staying at home when sick with symptoms will help reduce this spread.”