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You Asked: What Is IU's Plan To Combat COVID Variants?

Sample Gates at Indiana University Bloomington campus in the winter/snow, Feb 2021.

(Emma Atkinson, WFIU/WTIU News)

Several COVID-19 variants are becoming more prominent by the day in the United States. But as Indiana University begins its first week of in-person classes, officials remain cautiously optimistic.

Graham McKeen, assistant university director of public and environmental health, said IU is in a good spot from a public health standpoint with a zero-point-3 percent positivity rate last week in mitigation testing and a zero-point-two percent positivity rate in on-arrival testing for students living on-campus.

"So that really is a good spot to be in at the start of the semester," McKeen said. "And we anticipate, you know, with people getting back together, not necessarily in classrooms but just traveling and getting together, we’re going to see a smaller, a spike of sorts.”

IU has geared up to test up to 50,000 people a week this semester with mitigation testing. On-campus students will be tested twice a week and off-campus students will be tested once a week. Staff and faculty will be chosen more often for mitigation testing than they were last semester.

WEDNESDAY INDIANA CORONAVIRUS NUMBERS: Updated County Metrics Leave Only One Indiana County Red

But McKeen said the variants will be the x-factor in the coming weeks and months. All active variants are more contagious than the original virus and the variant that originated in the United Kingdom may be more deadly.

Genomic sequencing, the only way to know for sure whether a COVID-19 case is a variant, has expanded by ten-fold in the past three weeks as the CDC scrambled to bulk up its weak genomic sequencing capacity. McKeen says sequencing capacity is still nowhere near high enough to detect most variants. 

Regular diagnostic COVID-19 tests can detect possible signs of the variant that originated in the UK and these cases are then passed along for genetic sequencing.

READ MORE: Here's Where You Can Get Tested For COVID-19 In Monroe County

Virus variants are a normal part of the evolution of a virus, especially when a virus is widespread.

“The more sheer spread we have, the more viral evolution we’re going to have, the more mutations we’re going to have, the more advantages that virus will get over time," McKeen said. "That’s why it’s still really important to just try to limit the spread of the disease to begin with.”

McKeen pointed out that Monroe County residents have been more compliant with mask-wearing than in surrounding communities, and that will help if variants begin to spread in Bloomington.

He said properly wearing a mask is everyone’s best defense, and the CDC released data Wednesday that says layering cloth and surgical masks creates even more protection against the virus.

The figure describes that wearing a mask that fits tightly to your face can help limit spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.
(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Because the variants are making the future less predictable. McKeen says he can’t say for sure whether the university would move all classes online if cases rise, but he doesn’t think it is likely.

“I think the situation would have to be fairly severe for us to not want to promote in-person class," McKeen said. "And we’ve been able to provide safe environments for the classroom and we have the data to show that we have not seen that classroom transmission. So I think that would be unlikely.”

FROM NPR: CDC Says Double-Masking Offers More Protection Against The Coronavirus

McKeen said the university will be watching case numbers in the next couple weeks to project how the rest of the semester will go.

For the latest news and resources about COVID-19, bookmark our Coronavirus In Indiana page here.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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