Concern about Omicron Variant hits W&L campus

Students fear study abroad cancellations and more restrictions. Campus health officials are cautious, but not panicked.


Luke Fountain

It feels like 2020 again: unease is growing, borders are closing and case numbers are rising. The new Omicron variant of COVID-19 is spreading, causing alarm worldwide. 

The Omicron variant, first identified in Botswana and South Africa, was recently labeled a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization. The Omicron variant worries many public health officials because of the unusually large number of mutations it has, about 30 to 50, the Washington Post reported. These mutations raise concern that the variant will spread easier and be more resistant to current vaccines, yet more research is needed to be sure.

Concern about the Omicron variant has spread to Washington and Lee campus. 

“It feels like it is 2020 all over again with spiking cases and border closures,” Catherine Pettegrove, ’25, said. “I’m scared we may go back online.”

Jane Horton, director of the W&L student health and counseling, echoed the cautious but not panicked mindset of national health officials. 

“Right now it is not clear whether [Omicron] is any more transmissible or causes any more serious illness than the current Delta variant,” Horton said.

Drewry Sackett, the university’s public relations official, said that “we continue to believe our campus community’s high vaccination rate is the most effective measure to slow the spread of the virus.”

The United States closed its borders to non-citizens seeking to enter from eight nations for two weeks, in an attempt to prepare before the variant arrived in the country. 

But the Omicron variant was identified in Virginia on Dec. 9, according to the Center For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This brings the total number of countries with the variant to at least 24.

Officials on campus attest that the university is prepared, but emphasize the need to not jump to conclusions.

“[It] is impossible to predict right now,” Horton said.

Unlike the onset of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, the university now has the capacity to test students and is flexible to the needs of the campus community. Horton said PCR testing is available on campus every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. 

“We can flex testing capacity upwards if needed in response to an outbreak,” Horton added.

The new variant has caused alarm surrounding studying abroad. But, school officials repeated that more needs to be known about the variant before any decisions can be made.

“While this is timely, it is really too early to say how or if Omicron will affect study abroad,” said Cindy Irby, assistant director of international education and study abroad advisor.

Fears over the change or even cancellation of Spring Term Abroad are at the front of many students’ minds. 

“I’m worried that Omicron may close Barbados and then I would not get a full experience of what Spring Term Abroad is,” Pettegrove, who is scheduled to travel to Barbados in the upcoming spring term, said. 

But, Mark Rush, director of international education, said it is  “too early to determine” and “too soon to draw conclusions.” 

While little is known right now, there are still ways to protect yourself. According to Horton, these are the best ways to reduce the chance of spreading a new COVID-10 variant:  

  1. Get a booster dose of COVID-19 vaccine as soon as you are eligible.
  2. Wear masks and maintain greater than six feet distance when in close/indoor contact with people other than roommates.
  3. Wash your hands frequently.
  4. Self-monitor for symptoms daily and get tested for COVID-19 when symptoms develop.
  5. Get a flu vaccine.

COVID-19 vaccines are available through the Virginia Department of Health  every Monday at the old Peebles/Gordmans building from noon to 9 p.m. Local pharmacies also have vaccines available. 

Students should call the Student Health Center to schedule a flu vaccine appointment.