COVID-19 Omicron Variant Poses Risk to Students Returning to Class

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COVID-19 statistics for Nevada and Clark county were provided by the Nevada Health Response. Image taken from the Nevada Health Response website. https://nvhealthresponse.nv.gov/covidtrace/how-the-app-works.html

UNLV students return to partially in-person lectures for the spring semester, yet the omicron variant still spreads at record levels in Nevada, exposing students to a greater risk of contracting the virus as they return to classes.

According to Nevada Health Response, Clark county has 3,044 new daily confirmed COVID-19 cases and 93 new daily probable cases as of Jan. 20. Nevada has 3,962 new daily confirmed cases and 187 new daily probable cases. 

“With omicron, we’re concerned about a greater ability of the virus to spread from person to person,” a UNLV assistant professor and principal investigator of UNLV’s COVID-19 contact tracing team, Brain Labus said. “So you add that into the mix, that means all the things that we’re doing may not be as effective in preventing transmission of the virus.”

The current spike in cases is largely due to the relatively new omicron variant of COVID-19, which is many times transmissible than the previous mutation of the virus, delta. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that as of Dec. 25, 2021, Omicron made up just a quarter of Nevada’s confirmed COVID-19 cases. Now multiple sources report that as of Jan. 5, Omicron is the dominant variant of COVID-19 in Nevada. 

Multiple sources report that early analysis from South Africa, where the Omicron variant was first detected, and the United Kingdom may indicate that this variant of COVID-19 is less deadly than its predecessors. 

“We know that it’s definitely more mild in people who are vaccinated. For people who are vaccinated, it tends to be a shorter duration, the symptoms aren’t as severe,” Labus said. “We know the vaccine is still excellent at preventing hospitalization and death, even if it can’t prevent the infection in the first place,” 

Labus recommends booster shots for those who were vaccinated five months ago or longer. The CDC also recommends an earlier booster for those who had the Johnsons & Johnson vaccine, after two months of receiving a dose. 

“When you’re exposed to something, your body develops an immune memory,” Labus said, “You fight off that pathogen, and you have antibodies now that are circulating with the ability to protect your body if you’re exposed again.” 

“Over time, that sort of wears out, kind of like a balloon deflating a little bit, it loses a bit of the air and you don’t have that same immune response over time. So a few months later, we give you a booster basically to refill that balloon, it gives you that stronger response, you have more antibodies, which means if you are exposed, you’re better prepared to fight it off.” 

Labus also advocates that an improvement in masks is also necessary for protection from the new variant.  

“We’re encouraging people to use better masks,”  Labus said. “So multiple layers of fabric, or the KN-95 masks or 95 masks, those higher quality masks that reduce the risk of transmission if you are exposed to somebody.”

In a recent statement from the UNLV executive vice president and provost, Chris Heavey lets students know that they can pick up a KN95 mask at the information desk inside of the Student Union.

Along with the boosters to ensure immunity and masks to protect from COVID-19 spread, Labus had one more recommendation to fight against the Omicron variant: common sense.

“Just be smart about your surroundings and the people you’re around,” he said. “Spread out if you can. Don’t sit on top of somebody else, sit further away if that’s possible. I know that’s not always possible in classrooms, but it is once you leave class.” 

“If you go to the Student Union, think, are you going to sit by that crowded table of people or are you going to sit somewhere off more by yourself where there’s less risk as you sit there and eat your lunch. Kind of look at the world as, unfortunately, a way to get infected and think about just little things you can do to put some distance between yourselves and others. That’s going to help reduce your risk.”

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