Student Health cautions University community amid rising cases

As Los Angeles County moved from the low transmission category into the medium coronavirus risk level Thursday, USC Student Health waits to see if a summer surge will trigger indoor mask mandates, Chief Student Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman said in a briefing with the Daily Trojan Monday. The potential transition into a high risk level will reintroduce the indoor mask mandate on campus, Van Orman said. 

Current University protocols do not require surveillance testing for students and staff, but positivity rates in the University community have risen to 7% for students and 3% for faculty over the past week. L.A. County reported 4,725 new cases on May 18 — the highest case count seen since the winter — County Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer said during the briefing, and hospitalizations are on the rise. 

“I’m actually encouraging people to consider routine surveillance testing now, even though it’s not required by campus,” Van Orman said. “Testing is available, and if you are regularly moving into crowded situations and working with others, consider just coming to campus every week and getting a test.”

The current position in the medium category of L.A. County sanctions indoor masking mandates on public transit, wider accessibility of vaccinations and improvements to indoor ventilation. L.A. County is seeing the emergence of two new Omicron variants, BA.4 and BA.5, Van Orman said, which are more contagious. Individuals who have been infected with a different variant are not immune to these new variants. 

“Even though you’ve had infection, you may still be at risk,” Van Orman said. “It’s a really important situation right now … We’re all watching to see if there’ll be a summer surge.”

Student Health works with USC Environmental Health and Safety and USC Youth Protection and Programming to assess coronavirus regulations for on-campus summer activities. Van Orman said the summer is a different kind of risk than the normal academic year because of the variety in the duration that individuals — students taking classes, faculty teaching, the ongoing operation of research labs and youth programs in USC Housing — reside on campus.

“Individuals will be testing with us. Some of them have their own testing programs,” Van Orman said. “Many of the programs, based on their risk, are requiring surveillance testing.”

The aerosol transmission of the coronavirus prompts consistent replacement of air filters, Van Orman said, to regulate ventilation in indoor environments. Executive Director of Facilities, Operations and Maintenance Eric Johnson said the filters are changed at least twice a year.

“In some buildings, we can get information through an energy management system that indicates the air pressure through the filter has decreased,” said Johnson in a statement to the Daily Trojan. “In these situations, filters are changed more frequently.”

There are no updates on what developments will occur in Fall 2022, Van Orman said, because of the coronavirus’ unpredictability. She said she expects that if cases worsen, the University will uphold the principles of testing, vaccination, masking and upgrading indoor air quality.

“Students really left campus right as this current surge was starting, and so we’re going to anticipate it really increasing,” Van Orman said. “But in some ways, we were fortunate that the semester ended before the community surge really started, and we’re seeing this [rise in cases] across the country right now.”