School health officials call for vigilance with new COVID variant in Illinois

A new variant of COVID-19 was discovered in the Chicago area of Illinois; while school health officials say the variant hasn’t heavily impacted our area, they warned of the possible consequences if students don’t remain vigilant. 

Jerry Kruse, medical doctor and dean and provost of the SIU School of Medicine, said that even though Illinois has moved into less restrictive mitigations, this new variant means residents shouldn’t ease up on pandemic protocol. 

“The issue with the new variants is that oftentimes, they’re more infectious than the other ones, and that means that the average number of people who can be infected by one person might be a little bit higher,” Kruse said. “And so the message we’re getting out is to not let our guard down … we’ve moved back to a more liberal either tier or phase by the State of Illinois, and that kind of encourages people to get together or drop their guard down on their preventative measures — that’s the wrong thing to do right now.”

According to Kruse, if proper precautions are not taken this flu season, it could lead to a surge in both COVID-19 and influenza. 

“We were fearing the dreaded combination of an influenza outbreak with COVID,” Kruse said. “Influenza season goes until the end of March, and if we let our guard down too much … and we get an influenza and COVID surge on March 15, watch out.”

According to Riane Greenwalt, director of Health Services, the school’s testing response will remain the same for now, but may change with new information.

“We’ll continue to do this randomized voluntary testing during the Spring,” Greenwalt said. “COVID has been fairly fluid, so while we say that today, if we found out new information tomorrow we would obviously adjust.”

If a student tests positive, according to Greenwalt, they will still follow the school’s current guidelines of remaining in isolation for 10 days if they’re asymptomatic, or remain in isolation until their symptoms have subsided — but even if they test negative, Greenwalt says students should act like they’re about to test again. 

“While testing itself does not make you safe, the behavior of knowing that you’re going to test sometimes changes what you’ll do and makes you safe,” Greenwalt said. “So just because you’re negative today, if you turned around and didn’t wear a mask … you could test positive tomorrow.”

The discovery of the new COVID variant in Illinois comes as the state enters Phase 1B of its Vaccine Administration Plan. SIU’s current vaccination rollout plan has already begun in a few areas like the School of Medicine and the School of Pharmacy — but according to Chancellor Randy Pembrook, the Illinois Board for Higher Education is still working with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office to make vaccines available to the larger campus community.

“Right now, K-12 is included in the 1B stage,” Pembrook said. “In Illinois, higher education is not included in that 1B phase, but I think … if we could achieve that, then that would mean when students return home from college in April or May at the end of the semester, hopefully everyone will have been vaccinated so that we don’t have that bursting of the bubble effect of thousands and thousands of people going back to communities and possibly spreading it.”

Lakesha Butler, a clinical professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice, said the current vaccines in the area will still be effective against the new variant of the virus, citing a press release published by vaccine manufacturer Moderna. However, Butler said those who get vaccinated should still take proper precautions for the sake of those around them.

“Anyone that is getting vaccinated, you are still encouraged to wear a mask and social distance. There won’t be any necessary lifting of restrictions,” Butler said. “The reason why is because we want to allow others to get vaccinated, and we want to build that herd immunity.” 

Even before the discovery of this new variant, vaccine misinformation has run rampant online. Kruse said he has received several questions about some of these claims, which he said are unfounded. 

“I have had many people ask me about two misconceptions about the messenger RNA vaccines. One, that in the vaccine, there’s a chip that gets implanted in your arm so that the government can follow you anywhere and track you and know anything that you’re doing. Ridiculous, you know, it’s nonsense,” Kruse said. “The other one is a little more subtle … the misconception is that it gets in your cell, goes into the nucleus of the cell and changes and alters your DNA permanently and you become a different organism. Well, not true … [it] never goes into the cell, never touches your DNA, never does anything like that.” 

Greenwalt said a few other misconceptions could also be the root of people’s vaccination reluctance. 

“I think we obviously see people that are hesitant about getting the vaccine because of many myths that are out there,” Greenwalt said. “It is not a live vaccine — you cannot get COVID from the COVID vaccine. While it seems like it was developed very quickly, the actual way this vaccine was developed has been in development for a very long time, it just happened to match that COVID would be the perfect virus to use it with. There are no long-term studies, and so it’s hard to say what will be way down the road, but we believe that it is much safer to get the vaccine than to get COVID.”

To avoid misinformation like this, Butler recommended students seek a few credible resources, including, but not limited to, herself. 

“The CDC is a great resource, so it’s cdc.gov, and they have a special section pertaining to COVID-19 and it’s updated regularly,” Butler said. “[Illinois Department of Public Health] is another resource, Madison County Health Department is another resource … our campus resource would be Health Services … and I’m willing to answer questions as well.”

Those with questions about the university’s COVID-19 response and/or vaccinations can email Butler at lwiley@siue.edu, visit the school’s COVID-19 Information webpage or view the Conversations of Understanding video from Jan. 26 on the SIU System YouTube channel.

 

 

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