USC Student Health prepares for vaccine distribution, spring semester amid surge in coronavirus cases

Positive symptomatic and asymptomatic coronavirus cases among students and employees have continued to rise in the weeks following Thanksgiving, Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman said in a student media briefing Thursday. According to Van Orman, these trends demonstrate “very serious” circumstances both on campus and in Los Angeles County that USC Student Health aims to address with vaccine distribution in the upcoming months. 

According to the University’s COVID-19 in Numbers dashboard, during the week of Nov. 29 to Dec. 5, 43 students and 26 employees tested positive for the coronavirus. This marks a stark increase from the previous week, during which 24 students and six employees tested positive. However, according to Van Orman, positive student case numbers are not rising as fast because more students have left the L.A. area for winter break.

“Despite the warnings, we saw lots and lots of people travel and/or gather for Thanksgiving, and many of the cases that we’re seeing right here on campus among students and employees … when we asked them, they tell us they got together with groups for Thanksgiving,” Van Orman  said. “So we believe it is directly related to gatherings that may have happened over the Thanksgiving holidays, unfortunately.”

While the positivity rate via external testing distributor Color’s asymptomatic surveillance testing declined to 0.9%, Van Orman said there has been almost a 20-fold increase in the University’s asymptomatic positivity rates in the last six weeks. Meanwhile, symptomatic positivity rates increased to 3.0% last week, according to the dashboard.

“I know [the 0.9% asymptomatic positivity rate] seems very low, but those are among individuals who haven’t been symptomatic, haven’t been exposed,” Van Orman said. “Just for reference, in October, our asymptomatic positivity was about 0.5% … That’s actually very concerning for the level of disease that we’re seeing.”

KTLA reported that L.A. County has continued to see an alarming increase in coronavirus cases following Thanksgiving, with 12,819 new cases recorded Thursday. According to the L.A. Department of Public Health, this update brings the total number of positive cases to a staggering 487,917 cases countywide.

According to the Los Angeles Times, L.A. County will likely receive its first allocation of the coronavirus vaccine of 84,000 doses, with these doses prioritized to healthcare workers. While Student Health has yet to be informed of when doses will arrive on campus, it is currently finalizing its list of priority groups for vaccine distribution. Van Orman said the first doses will be prioritized for healthcare workers and other essential employees.  

According to Van Orman, there are roughly four groups for the University’s incoming vaccine distribution. While the first group includes healthcare workers and essential employees, the second group includes those who work in education settings and/or are at higher risk, Van Orman said. Most students will fall under the third group, and then the fourth group involves everyone else, she said. 

“Students really for the most part fall in what we think of as group [or] phase three,” Van Orman said. “Some students might be in phase two, if they’re at higher risk … for example, students who might have significant underlying health conditions or [those who] are over 65. And then our health professions students, so our dental students or medical students who are in the healthcare settings, would potentially fall into the phase one.”

According to The New York Times, British medical regulators warned Wednesday that people with a significant history of allergic reactions should not receive the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine — one of the coronavirus vaccines that have demonstrated efficacy and have been distributed to the United Kingdom since — while they investigate two health workers who received the vaccine and had developed anaphylactoid reactions. 

Van Orman said while she is excited that there are many positive news surrounding the coronavirus vaccine, she said it is also important to understand the limitations of them. Even though data demonstrated remarkable efficacy in vaccines like the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, implying that participants are not contracting COVID-19 as a result, Van Orman said there is still more to be known. 

“Some side effects may not emerge until you’re now vaccinating a million people or two million people,” Van Orman said. “So one thing about the vaccines is we just have to understand that the safety data, while it looks very good for the Pfizer vaccine, we won’t know all the safety data until it’s widely used, so that’s just the reality.”

Van Orman said she and other healthcare workers, as well as the Food and Drug Administration — whose advisory council recommended emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine Thursday — are watching worldwide vaccine distribution very closely to see what other potential safety warnings to integrate into vaccination programs. 

Another gap in information regarding vaccines is whether the vaccine will successfully prevent transmission from someone who tests positive for the coronavirus, Van Orman said. According to Van Orman, such information is “very difficult” to gather especially in the early phases of vaccine distribution; therefore, she said taking the vaccine has to be complementary to wearing masks, adhering to social distancing guidelines and getting tested regularly to prevent further transmission.

Amid the growing anti-vaxxer movement and general skepticism regarding the coronavirus vaccine, Van Orman said she expects for it to be a challenge to get all students and employees willing to get vaccinated. 

“We have to be really open and honest with people about what we know, and what we don’t know,” Van Orman said. “We also really have to have that complex conversation about risk and benefit … It’s also important for people to set models. As soon as it’s available, and my prioritization group comes up, I’m going to be the first in line to get that vaccine because I understand the impact that it’s had on our communities and the need to stop, honestly, to stop the number of people who are dying right now.” 

Even with the spring semester starting online, Van Orman said Student Health has continued to work with private landlords and sent out more messaging urging students to not return to L.A. in the spring due to the current countywide and nationwide surge in coronavirus cases. If students still choose to return to L.A., Van Orman said she strongly encourages them to delay their return till the surge is over, noting that the country has “a very, very difficult few months” ahead.

“Certainly, I know students, that the desire to come back and the need to kind of have a place to study is really real, but unfortunately, living in a household, living locally, it really is not safe right now,” Van Orman said. “And it’s actually prohibited to see anyone out of your household … So I discourage students from doing that.”