Unlike peer institutions Harvard, Princeton and Yale Universities, Dartmouth made the decision last December to conduct winter term courses in person amid a global surge in coronavirus infections. Despite other protocols — a vaccine mandate, a face covering policy and a surveillance testing program — a sizable percentage of Dartmouth students living on or near campus this winter have contracted what is likely the omicron variant of COVID-19.
College spokesperson Diana Lawrence wrote in an emailed statement that as of Tuesday, 1,550 students have contracted COVID-19 since Jan. 1, roughly 23% of the total student population — including those not currently in the Upper Valley — of 6,761. Additionally, 2,791 students are still within their 90-day, post-infection exemption period from testing, suggesting that at least 41% of the Dartmouth student body has been infected with the virus at some point since late October. Figures for the number of students on and near campus this winter, and thus participating in testing, were not available by press time.
Nationwide, the U.S. is now seeing over 600,000 cases a day, down from a peak of more than 800,000 earlier this month.
Geisel School of Medicine biomedical data science professor Michael Whitfield said that 90% of positive cases in the Northeast are omicron.
“As of early January, Dartmouth College is really no different: The majority of the cases we are seeing are the omicron variant,” Whitfield said. “In December, we were seeing most cases were delta.”
Whitfield added that omicron is easily distinguishable using a “very specific” PCR test, as the variant displays many mutations in one of its spike proteins.
“Omicron has mutations that allow it to bind to the receptor that it uses to get into cells more tightly, but it also has mutations that allow it to impart and evade an immune response,” Whitfield said. “It is significantly more transmissible because it can get into cells more easily.”
Community and family medicine professor Eugene Nelson said that the R-naught — the number of people infected by a person already infected — is about twice as high for omicron as for delta.
“Because epidemics move exponentially, we get this incredibly rapid surge and then a rather rapid decline because it has run its course through the population,” Nelson said. He added that antibodies gained from exposure and vaccinations have a “shelf life” in the population, meaning that immunity decreases over time.
Nelson added that the high number of infections is to be expected but should warrant concern.
“There is a bell-shaped curve, and those on the right side could have severe symptoms and even some fatalities,” Nelson said.
Rockefeller Center policy fellow Anne Sosin ’02 confirmed Nelson, saying that the “uncontrolled transmission” of omicron among students should not be taken lightly.
“Many students in our community are individually at lower risk, however, our community includes people who are at higher risk,” Sosin said. “Our concern is that they can transmit onward to people in our communities who are at higher risk.”
Sosin added it can be difficult for at-risk individuals, who cannot benefit as fully from the COVID-19 vaccine, to stay safe when many infected students congregate in living, dining and classroom spaces.
“This virus spreads through shared air — it’s really hard when we have so many cases on campus for them to shelter safely,” Sosin said.
Sosin added that the categorization of omicron as mild is a “misnomer.” According to Sosin, at the individual level, many are at lower risk, but a fast-moving variant like omicron poses an “enormous collective threat” to our health systems, which are under “unprecedented strain.” She added that the U.S. has seen record hospitalizations during the surge, including in children zero-to-four years of age.
On Jan. 25, the U.S. seven-day daily average of hospitalizations was 147,841, with 25,807 in the ICU, slightly down from a peak hospitalization rate of 151,892 on Jan. 20. The average hospitalization rates recorded every day since Jan. 10 surpass the highest rates seen over the entirety of 2021, according to data from The New York Times and Our World in Data.
Further reporting by The New York Times shows that New Hampshire has experienced higher hospitalization rates than all of last year, with a daily hospitalization average of 419 on Jan. 26. The data suggest hospitalizations among people aged 70 or older are lower than in January 2021, but people aged 18 to 49 are being hospitalized so much more frequently than last year that the average rate across all age groups has risen.
Sosin said that while the population now has more underlying immunity due to infection and vaccination, whether omicron is “intrinsically milder” than other variants remains unknown.
“It’s producing many orders of magnitude more severe illness than what we see with the seasonal flu,” Sosin said. “If you’re a competent, young vaccinated and boosted person, you will most likely experience mild illness, [but] that doesn’t mean that you can’t transmit to someone who is not on equal footing immunologically.”
Sosin said the focus on severe illness and death can obscure the impacts that omicron continues to have on the Dartmouth community.
“This is just so enormously disruptive to teaching and learning on campus, health impacts aside, it’s not easy for students right now,” Sosin said.
In a Jan. 12 email sent to campus, interim provost David Kotz ’86 wrote that the College’s decision to “prioritize in-person classes, academic events, gym access and restricted but congregate dining is directly connected to the imperative of preserving the mental and physical health of our students.” Kotz emphasized that the College expects strict adherence to its current policies, including social distancing, masking and submission of booster documentation.
Nelson also said that the indirect effects of such high infection rates — especially mental health issues — should be a cause for concern. He added that 30-35% of the U.S. population is suffering mild, moderate or even severe anxiety or depression due to the virus, and that 700,000 have been diagnosed with the longer-term effects of COVID-19.
“It’s slightly more common for the younger age groups than the older population,” Nelson said. “When peoples’ lifestyle is upset, when you feel socially isolated, this tends to put stress and strain on people.”
Interim provost David Kotz ’86 and executive vice president Rick Mills did not respond to requests for comment by press time.