Health experts weigh in on general campus sickness, Delta variant

While there is only one current student case of COVID-19, “typical college viruses” persist during summer term.

by Soleil Gaylord | 7/23/21 5:00am

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by Oliver De Jonghe / The Dartmouth

As Dartmouth students reach the midpoint of a mostly-open summer term, non-COVID-19 illnesses continue to circulate among students.

Eric Och ’22 said that two weeks ago, he got sick with a sore throat, fatigue, muscle aches, congestion and a cough. 

“I lost my voice completely for a couple days, and I was wiped out for eight days,” Och said.

In a Community Conversations livestream Wednesday, clinical medical services director Ann Bracken said the College has noticed students getting sick this term with “typical college viruses” like mononucleosis as well as cases of strep throat. 

“We don’t have a strep epidemic, which some people were concerned about, but we’re seeing regular college illnesses, which we typically see,” Bracken said, adding that from “[m]idterms on, students are working really hard, staying up late, having close contact with their friends.”

As of Thursday evening, there is currently only one active student case of COVID-19, according to Dartmouth’s COVID-19 dashboard. Dartmouth’s on-campus population is now 92% fully vaccinated, and 80% of Dartmouth’s entire community is fully vaccinated. Nearly all restrictions, including masking for fully-vaccinated students and social distancing requirements, were lifted on June 24.

“It’s normal that lifting [COVID-19] mitigation measures will enable other illnesses to circulate on campus, but we can’t say that there’s a causal relationship,” Anne Sosin, a policy fellow at the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, said. “Viruses will always circulate — a campus is a very enabling environment for the transmission of infectious diseases.”

Sosin added that in the wake of the pandemic, she believes some health structures should be permanently changed, such as greater investment in ventilation. She noted that while it wouldn’t be “reasonable” to ask students to wear masks and socially distance on a long-term basis, it will be important to rethink quarantine and isolation procedures.

“Students going to class, dining halls and other activities while they’re sick fuels the circulation of other illnesses on campus, so we really need to rethink the workplace setting,” Sosin said, adding that paid time off or staying home would be helpful preventative behaviors for curbing the spread of illnesses on campus.

Geisel School of Medicine pediatrics professor Dr. Peter Wright said that viruses occur year-round — often seasonally. 

“There are a series of viruses that occur throughout the year: If you see colds in the summer, it may be an adenovirus, and later in the fall and during the winter, [it may be] respiratory syncytial virus and influenza,” Wright said.

Wright added that respiratory syncytial virus did not occur “nearly at all” last winter in general, likely due to social distancing and mask-wearing. The virus, Wright said, has occurred later than usual “in a number of locations,” with a holdover stretching into the spring and summer months. Wright added that the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, as well as individuals’ weakened immune systems due to a lack of exposure during the pandemic, have allowed viruses to spread more easily this summer.

Wright said he did not think the current spread of illness at Dartmouth was COVID-19; instead, he said, it could be one of many viruses responsible for causing the common cold. 

Geisel medicine professor Dr. Jose Mercado echoed Wright, adding that the effectiveness of mask-wearing and physical distancing was shown last winter when the flu virus didn’t circulate as much as it had in past years.

“I think part of what we are seeing is that as we relax those mask mandates, we start to see cases of respiratory illness, we start to experience symptoms which could be from viruses that cause the common cold,” Mercado said. 

Mercado added that the best way to avoid the flu and COVID-19 is to be vaccinated against each. He said that people should also continue to practice good hand hygiene, consider wearing a mask in crowded places and make sure that frequently touched surfaces are sanitized. 

“If we are starting to see an increase in the percent positivity rate in the community, hospitalizations [and] breakthrough infections, then the mitigation strategies around COVID-19 will probably come back,” Mercado said. “We live in a very mobile community — whenever you have a variant that has more capacity to spread, it is safe to expect that it will eventually reach us.”

Mercado also said that because the symptoms of many respiratory viruses are similar — such as fever, cough and cold — it is important to talk to a healthcare professional to help make the right diagnosis. 

Despite high vaccination rates among the Dartmouth community, concerns over COVID-19 variants run high. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that 83% of the COVID-19 virus circulating in the U.S. is the Delta variant, a more transmissible virus. 

Sosin said that Dartmouth will “inevitably” see the Delta variant on campus. While vaccines are “breaking the link between infection and severe illness,” Sosin said, this does not preclude the variant from circulating among Dartmouth’s population.

“It’s great that Dartmouth is mandating vaccines, and that is going to protect students and staff from severe illness, but we can expect to see breakthrough infections and cases even among those that are vaccinated,” Sosin said. “Vaccines are highly effective at preventing severe illness and death, but we will see breakthrough infections especially with this variant, which is much more transmissible.”

Sosin said that the concern regarding COVID-19 is not the development of severe illness among students, but transmission to unvaccinated individuals, particularly children under 12, who are not yet eligible for vaccination. She added that the Delta variant may arrive on Dartmouth’s campus “as early as this summer” and that there may already be cases in the community.

“This is not reason for panic or hysteria, but this variant is highly transmissible — it’s around 50% more transmissible than the Alpha variant that we saw circulating this spring,” Sosin said. “It spreads like wildfire.”

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