Penn State students will return to in-person classes next Monday, as the country is bracing for a faster-spreading COVID-19 variant to become dominant.
The B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus -- also known as the U.K. variant -- has already been detected in more than 30 states, including Pennsylvania. The Centers for Disease Control expects it to become the dominant variant in March.
Nita Bharti, with Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, said it’s critical that people in crowded situations -- like college dorms -- are aware of how effective a transmitter the new strain is.
“Some of what we're seeing with high density places, that's becoming even more concerning, that’s becoming even higher risk. So certainly high density housing is a worry," Bharti said.
Ryan Langlois is an immunologist with the Center for Immunology at the University of Minnesota Medical School and an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.
He said we’re in a race between the virus and vaccination.
“Unfortunately, the virus does have a bit of a head start. But, I think we can throw some roadblocks in the way by increasing our vigilance and letting the vaccine and vaccination regimen catch up," Langlois said.
Penn State has more aggressive testing and monitoring plans for the spring semester than it did in the fall. That includes requiring all students, with a few exceptions, to get tested before in-person classes resume next Monday.
Even so, Penn State and the State College area already are seeing an upswing in COVID-19 cases. The number of student cases at University Park since last semester has nearly doubled in the past week — from 307 on Jan. 29 to 601 on Friday.
A state Department of Health spokesman said Pennsylvania sends COVID test samples to the CDC for sequencing to identify the strain. The CDC is handling tracking and reporting.
Other universities are dealing with the B.1.1.7 variant, in particular. The University of Michigan, with the Washtenaw County Health Department, issued “stay-in-place” recommendations covering all students at the Ann Arbor campus for the last two weeks.
In its Jan. 27 announcement, the university said it detected “clusters” of both the B.1.1.7 variant and the dominant strain.