It’s a new year, and the third of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are currently experiencing a rapid rise in cases, sparked by the highly transmissible Omicron variant. This is not news to you, a human who lives in this world.
Here in Champaign County, cases are at an all time high. While Omicron does not seem to be as deadly as other variants (which are still circulating) for those who are vaccinated and boosted, a whole hell of a lot of people are getting sick and some are dying. Some of those sick people are hospitalized, causing people who work in hospitals to get sick and raising the risk of illness for those hospitalized for non-COVID reasons. Last week, January 6th, there were more than 1,200 new cases. That’s more than one thousand, two hundred positive cases in one day, in a county with a population of about 200,000. We’re averaging almost 1,000 new cases per day.
Screenshot from Google.
That’s not great, people! We’re about to welcome tens of thousands of students back to C-U.
Some of us are not being great stewards of this community. Others of us feel like we’re screaming into the void while simultaneously beating our head against a wall, because we have done what’s been asked of us, and yet here we are.
Per Champaign-Urbana Public Health District data, more than 87% of people who have tested positive for the virus were unvaccinated. All humans over the age of five are eligible for, and should be vaccinated against this disease. Boosters are recommended for anyone 12 and up.
There is no convincing the people who think COVID is no big deal and that those who are dying are deserving of care and empathy. Our society and national culture has always prioritized able-bodied white youth; change is hard and slow. As long as the majority of people hospitalized and dying from this disease are older adults with comorbidities, things will carry on as they have.
It is easy to blame the University of Illinois for all sorts of ills in this community (often for good reason), but that's not really the case in this situation. Consider this: What is it like for a student to come to C-U, where only 126,000 people, or 63% of the eligible population, is fully vaccinated? At the U of I, 95% of undergraduate and 97% of graduate students are fully vaccinated. By contrast, 89% of faculty and staff are vaccinated — a high number, indeed, but still significantly lower than other campus demographics. Faculty and staff are generally the people who permanently live here, who are traversing the boundaries between town and gown more regularly than students. They have small children in school. They shop for groceries off campus. Their small kids have activities and doctor’s appointments and playdates. Faculty and staff are often embedded in the community in ways undergraduate students simply aren’t. Students will spread COVID to each other through their social activities, but as we saw previously, much of the spread is likely to be from the community to the campus.
The U of I’s spring 2022 semester begins remotely January 18th, with in person classes resuming January 24th. Students, faculty, and staff must take an on-campus saliva test (and receive a negative result) before being able to enter U of I facilities. Vaccine boosters are now required; students can make appointments through McKinley Health Center. Unvaccinated, exempted students, faculty, and staff are required to test every other day. Faculty and staff are not required to test on their days off. At University Laboratory High School, vaccinations and boosters are required. For the time being, N95, KN95, or KF94 masks are required of all, and are provided to those who don’t have them. Vaccinated students test every other day. Unvaccinated students test every day. U of I Athletics now requires proof of vaccination or negative test results for all attendees over age 12 at events with more than 200 people. This new policy (one we’ve been advocating for) will hopefully help mitigate further spread from the community to the campus.
At Parkland, students, faculty, and staff must report their vaccination status. Building access is limited and dependent on a negative test result.
Urbana School District #116 has been testing nearly everyone, and last week superintendent Dr. Jennifer Ivory-Tatum has outlined criteria for remote learning, should the district need to implement it for a short period of time. Champaign Unit 4 School District’s last publicly available update from Dr. Shelia E. Boozer was on December 31st, reiterating the importance of vaccines and the testing protocol for unvaccinated faculty and staff (twice a week). We know that most people feel strongly about having their kids in school, in person, but if teachers continue to get sick, students will have to stay home. We’re already seeing this at Urbana Middle School, which went to remote learning this week due to of staffing shortages.
C-U’s K-12 schools need to implement a COVID vaccine mandate. This is not unreasonable or out of line. High quality masks — KN95s and KF94s — should be provided for students, faculty, and staff. Organized, regular surveillance testing should be the norm. Thankfully this has been implemented in District 116. It should be happening in Unit 4. We must stop relying on individuals in the community to “do the right thing." People clearly have different priorities with regard to their personal comfort and responsibilities to their community; it’s high time to codify the measures needed to ensure the health and safety of C-U’s school kids, and by extension, the adults in their lives.
Anecdotally, mask wearing around C-U is hit or miss — it really depends on where you are and how willing/able businesses are to enforce the mandate. The cities of Champaign and Urbana should be implementing more restrictions on large gatherings and mask wearing. Proof of vaccine or recent negative test should be required for event spaces, restaurants, and gyms. Businesses need to take action and initiative on this matter in concert with the cities. Tackling this pandemic requires a top-down approach as much as it requires individual responsibility.
No matter the trajectory of the Omicron variant — maybe it will peak in the next couple weeks, or maybe it continues to wreak havoc until March — we have to be mindful of all the interconnections in this small community. If our hospitals are overwhelmed because of increased demand due to an additional 30,000 people moving here this month, people suffer. Annual health screenings are delayed or cancelled. Kids with COVID are home with parents who can’t go to work at Kraft or at Parkland or at your favorite restaurant. Businesses lose money. C-U is one big ball of tangled string. We have to do better to ensure the health and wellness of the entire community, even those who are only here temporarily.
If you are five months or more from your last COVID vaccine, please make an appointment to get your booster. Remember: vaccines are safe and prevent serious illness and death. Here are the places in C-U you can get COVID tested. Both vaccines and tests are free.
The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Mara Thacker, and Patrick Singer.