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Cases among faculty, staff, undergraduates rise ahead of students’ return to campus

Not all students who receive positive COVID-19 tests will be contact traced under new policy.

<h5>Lewis Thomas Laboratory, where COVID-19 tests are processed on campus.</h5>
<h6>Daily Princetonian Staff / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Lewis Thomas Laboratory, where COVID-19 tests are processed on campus.
Daily Princetonian Staff / The Daily Princetonian

For the week ending on Jan. 7, the University reported 446 positive COVID-19 cases on campus and a 5.65 percent positivity rate across undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, and staff. 

Positive cases among faculty and staff have approximately doubled from 131 cases to 324 cases in the past week, while cases among undergraduates have more than tripled — rising from 23 cases to 71 cases between Dec. 31 and Jan. 7. 

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Isolation dorm occupancy stood at 70 percent capacity, according to the COVID-19 Dashboard, as of Jan. 7. As omicron continues to put established pandemic protocol into question across the nation, both the University and the town of Princeton have adjusted their rules.

The town announced an emergency indoor mask mandate as a response to the rise in cases, and the University said it will be modifying its contact tracing protocol.

These case counts come just one week before the earliest permitted return date of Jan. 14 for undergraduate students. Students were asked to sign up for specific return dates between Jan. 14 and Jan. 23. 

“The increase in cases among faculty, staff and students reflects the rise in cases in the broader community,” Dr. Irini Daskalaki, Global and Community Health Physician in University Health Services (UHS), wrote in an email to The Daily Princetonian. “Because of our asymptomatic testing program, we are discovering cases that may have otherwise been missed, which is an important tool for limiting transmission.”

These increases also come in the wake of what experts like professor Jeffrey Shaman at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health predict to be the peak of the omicron variant in the United States. The state of New Jersey saw 19,454 new confirmed positive cases this week.

On campus, many students are testing positive for COVID-19 upon arrival, according to Daskalaki.

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“[W]e expect this trend to continue throughout the month of January,” she told the ‘Prince,’ “omicron is highly transmissible and many vaccinated people have very mild symptoms, making it less likely that they will suspect they are infected at the time they are highly communicable.” 

Beyond Fitz-Randolph Gate, the municipality of Princeton recently implemented an emergency mask mandate that will go into effect Jan. 13, 2022 — just a day before undergraduates will begin returning to campus.

“The University’s face-covering policy is consistent with the municipality’s mask mandate. It’s important for students to be aware of the municipality’s mandate and to adhere to it when out in the community,” Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’

The University has changed its contact tracing practices “since the omicron variant of COVID became the dominant strain in the US,” according to the University’s COVID-19 website

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“We will not be contact tracing all those who receive a positive COVID test,” the website stated.  

But Daskalaki stressed that this shift doesn’t constitute a full-stop to contact tracing, but rather a shift in priorities. 

“It’s important to note the University has not discontinued contact tracing,” she said. These changes come from “following guidance from the CDC and peer institutions,” Daskalaki continued. “We are prioritizing contact tracing for populations that are at the highest risk of transmission: students and service personnel.”

Daskalaki cited the shorter incubation period of the omicron variant which “makes contact tracing somewhat less effective as a mitigation strategy.”

For staff, however, Daskalaki explained that the procedures after receiving a positive test may look different.

“Other employees may not receive a call from the University’s contact tracers following a positive test result,” she said.

Further information about what to do upon receipt of a positive test result is available here.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated faculty/staff case increase as tripled from the week of Dec. 24 and student case increase as doubled. In fact, student cases more than tripled and faculty cases approximately doubled. The ‘Prince’ regrets this error.

Anika Buch is an Associate News Editor at the Prince who typically covers STEM communities and research on campus. She can be reached at ambuch@princeton.edu.

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