Penn State neared pandemic record with 631 COVID cases last week. But has omicron finally peaked?

Noah Riffe/nriffe@centredaily.com
·4 min read

Penn State neared a pandemic record last week with 631 COVID cases, University Park’s highest number of campus infections since the 2020 fall semester — but, with cases declining statewide, the hope is that Penn State’s cases will soon follow suit.

Based on data from Jan. 17-23 on the university’s COVID dashboard, which was updated Thursday, University Park saw 564 student infections and 67 employee cases. The previous 12-month high was 539 cases from the week before; the all-time high was 694 cases from fall 2020 (Sept. 18-24).

“Our vaccination rates are quite high across our campuses and we continue to endorse vaccination as the best measure against COVID-19 to reduce severity and incidence of the virus,” Kelly Wolgast, director of Penn State’s COVID-19 Operations Control Center, said in an email. “The trends in omicron cases seem to be declining a bit in Pennsylvania; however, it is too early to know definitively. We are remaining vigilant in our efforts to quickly identify cases, educate on isolation and quarantine, and offer support to our students.”

On Monday, Keara Klinepeter, the commonwealth’s acting secretary of health, said omicron appears to have peaked in Pennsylvania — although, she added, community spread remains “extraordinarily dangerous” and, “We are not out of the woods yet.” For comparison purposes, the commonwealth saw a record 33,000 infections Jan. 7 and fewer than 17,000 infections Thursday.

Some Penn State faculty have temporarily moved their classes online, as part of a university policy that allows for up to 24.9% of in-person classes to be held remotely. Some have moved their classes proactively, to avoid infection, while others said they have done so because a number of their students have been unable to attend due to infection.

The university did not directly answer CDT questions about how many classes are temporarily being held remotely, but a spokesperson said it is each academic unit’s responsibility to oversee their own course delivery procedures.

“We are confident that students are receiving information pertinent to their particular classes and that faculty are putting their students and the curriculum as top priority to deliver high-quality coursework,” spokesman Wyatt DuBois said in a written statement.

Christina Gronzinger, an entomology professor and vice president of the Penn State chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said both students and faculty were eager to return to in-person teaching this semester — but it hasn’t been easy so far.

“January’s wave of COVID cases has been challenging for faculty and students alike,” she said in a written statement, “and flexibility in instructional modes enables us to continue teaching and ensure the best learning outcomes for our students, while keeping everyone safe.”

Penn State isn’t alone when it comes to COVID cases on campus. NPR reported as much over the weekend, noting that the University of Georgia set its own pandemic record with nearly 1,000 weekly positive cases earlier this month, while Dartmouth (1,196 weekly cases) and Oregon (960 weekly cases) also experienced surges.

It’s difficult to know definitively if Penn State’s cases are finally beginning decrease, as the first three days of this week’s data (Jan. 24-26) are likely still awaiting some test results. So far however, in three days, there have been 183 confirmed cases. This week’s positivity rate also currently stands at 5.9%, a notable decrease from the previous week’s 8.7%.

According to the state Department of Health, Centre County — home to Penn State’s flagship university — experienced a positivity rate of 28.3% last week, more than tripling the university’s rate.

While other colleges and universities, like Pitt, chose to move to remote learning for the first few weeks of the spring semester to avoid the pandemic’s potential peak, Penn State opted to move forward with its original plan of in-person learning. University President Eric Barron said they believed they could do so “safely but carefully,” which drew ire from many students and faculty.

Some 91.2% of Penn State students and 85.6% of employees have told the university they’re vaccinated.

Penn State will update its COVID dashboard every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the semester. It can be found at virusinfo.psu.edu/covid-19-dashboard/.

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