Positivity rates climb, boosters recommended

Exterior of the Lyon Center.
Students are encouraged to get their flu vaccines and booster shots, which are available at the Lyon Center through Student Health. (Celine Vasquez | Daily Trojan file photo)

87 students tested positive for coronavirus this week, Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman confirmed in a student media briefing Tuesday afternoon. These numbers come with growing concern as the University sees increasing levels of positive cases each week, likely suggesting a need for booster shots to continue preventing breakthrough infections.

In the week of Nov. 8, there was a total of 88 positive tests, giving a test positivity rate of 0.3%, a “significant increase” from the positivity rate of 0.23% the previous week, Van Orman said. In October, weekly case numbers remained in the low 20s with a rate of about 0.1% test positivity. 

A rise in coronavirus cases among students and employees mirrors a rise in cases across Los Angeles County, which reported nearly 900 new cases Tuesday. The uptick may reflect decreasing success of the vaccine’s ability to protect from breakthrough infections with increased time since their original vaccination date, Van Orman said.

L.A. County and USC are currently pushing booster shots for all who are eligible in order to prevent an increasing amount of coronavirus cases.

“Over the next few weeks, we’re really encouraging people who have more than six months with Moderna or Pfizer to actually get a booster,” Van Orman said. 

Individuals receiving their booster vaccine are allowed to “mix and match” their vaccines, which may give them a better immune response, Van Orman said. 

Although the vaccine continues to protect against the coronavirus’ worst symptoms, breakthrough infections remain a growing possibility. 

“The vaccines continue to protect against severe hospitalization and death. But we do believe that over time, [the vaccines’] ability to protect us against breakthrough cases is really waning, especially at that six month mark,” Van Orman said.

According to Van Orman, since 95% of students are vaccinated at this point of the semester, most cases at the University are considered breakthrough cases.

Van Orman expects the current level of cases to remain the same for the upcoming week. As students make holiday travel plans, Van Orman encourages students to test before and after returning to campus and to make sure that they are not sick when they return home. 

“Make sure that you don’t travel if you’re experiencing any symptoms at all, and then just be cautious with your social activities, especially over that Thanksgiving weekend,” Van Orman said.

Earlier this month, USC Student Health notified USC students, staff and faculty who have received either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines more than six months ago or the Johnson & Johnson vaccine two or more months ago of their eligibility for the booster shot.

The University plans to send further recommendations to the student body about boosters, flu shots and coronavirus testing before Thanksgiving break. 

Since the beginning of this flu season, USC has only had “sporadic” cases of influenza. 

Other universities have had influenza outbreaks that pose serious threats to their communities. The University of Michigan is currently under investigation by the CDC after over 500 confirmed cases of influenza have ripped across the campus since October. In the week of Nov. 8, 37% of their student flu tests were positive. This outbreak has caused concern for Van Orman and Student Health about effects of the flu at USC. 

“The University of Michigan right now is having this very large influenza outbreak, so we are concerned about influenza,” Van Orman said. “We’re not seeing significant numbers of cases right now, but we are very concerned about it.”

Eighty-three percent of staff, 75% of faculty and about 75% of students are currently vaccinated against the flu. Despite the Nov. 1 flu vaccine deadline mandated by the University, students are still encouraged to schedule their influenza vaccinations. 

Student Health looks to continue pushing information about the importance of flu vaccination for an assortment of reasons, Van Orman said, including a large concern over the illness’s severity that may result if someone is infected with the coronavirus and the flu simultaneously. In addition, flu outbreaks may have adverse effects on students’ ability to attend classes which has been proven to have a negative effect on grades and the ability to take finals that fall during flu season. 

Flu and booster shot appointments are available at the Lyon Center. Although a shortage in appointments appeared last week because of limited supplies, the University has since restocked and made more appointments available on the mySHR portal. 

For Spring 2022, Student Health looks to ensure incoming students are fully vaccinated. USC is also looking to alter mask and testing policies, but all changes depend on county policies and coronavirus case levels at the time, Van Orman said.

“If our cases stay low moving into spring, we, of course, want to be able to drop [coronavirus-related regulations]. Indoor masking is more driven by [L.A.] County … and they’re going to pin that to what we’re seeing in terms of cases in the county,” Van Orman said.