Student Health watching for BA.2 omicron variant

As BA.2 coronavirus variant cases increase around the world, USC Student Health is watching its impacts on the University very closely, Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman said during a student media briefing Tuesday. The University had its first BA.2 case in January, and cases have slowly increased since. The variant is currently responsible for about a quarter of coronavirus cases at USC. 

This data is consistent with numbers in other parts of the country, Van Orman said. Although it has not been associated with any coronavirus surges, BA.2 is beginning to become the predominant variant. 

“While we at USC and in [Los Angeles] County and the U.S. have been able to step back a lot of mitigation measures, we’re all right now in a phase of preparedness,” Van Orman said.  “Whether that’s preparedness for [BA.2] or that’s preparedness for another variant.”

The school maintains its capacity to test, monitor outbreaks and monitor rates in L.A. County as a whole. 

“The challenge is we know what to do if we start to get a surge, but it’s just helping people understand that we may need to move back on some of our mitigation measures,” Van Orman said. 

Coronavirus rates continue to drop on campus. There were a total of 41 cases last week, with a positivity rate below 0.5%, even as fewer students test following the lift of the weekly surveillance testing for fully vaccinated and boosted individuals March 1. 

All students are required to take a PCR test after returning from spring break. As of Tuesday, Student Health has conducted nearly 7,000 PCR tests for students back on campus. It is required that all students test before Saturday or they will be unable to access campus Monday. The school anticipates an increase in positive cases this week, although it is too early to see positivity rates following spring break. The required PCR tests this week are intended to catch any travel-related cases. 

Students who have tested positive for coronavirus in the last 90 days do not need to take a PCR test, although they can pick up an antigen test from booths around campus. The University will not track antigen tests because they do not show up persistently positive as PCR tests. 

Van Orman said the majority of the positive cases on campus are coming from symptomatic students. 

“It’s just a good reminder to people that the first thing you should do if you develop any kind of symptoms is to get tested,” Van Orman said. 

Additionally, many students may return from spring break with other viral illnesses, Van Orman said. The University has seen “a number” of influenza cases and other respiratory viruses. 

“Just because you have a virus doesn’t mean it’s COVID, but we really want people to get tested to exclude COVID,” Van Orman said. 

Van Orman said it is still ideal for students to stay home if they feel unwell, even if they test negative for the coronavirus. 

“We are [currently at the end of flu season],” Van Orman said. “[However,] the flu can have an extended period. Flu has behaved differently during the time of COVID because of the change in people’s behaviors, so it is still possible for students to be catching the flu.”

There are currently no plans to change Trojan Check or mask policies, Van Orman said. Mask policies must stay in adherence with the county and the regulation will only change if it does within L.A. County. The University is currently monitoring post-spring break positivity rates, specifically BA.2 rates, within the surrounding community. Testing will also continue to be optional, although if rates do increase, the University may require students to test again.

“We’re trying to balance it,” Van Orman said. “We don’t want students to have to do more than is needed, but we also want to make sure that we’re able to keep the very low case numbers within L.A. County.”