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Coronavirus response | End of vaccine, test requirements marks new era for UI | Coronavirus

URBANA — The University of Illinois is entering a new era in its pandemic response.

The same campus that administered tens of thousands of rapid, saliva-based COVID-19 tests mere months after the virus took hold in the United States has ended its vaccination and testing requirements for all students and staff, effective immediately.

Since fall 2021, all three UI campuses have required students and employees to be vaccinated, or test on campus at least once every week. About 95 percent of Urbana-Champaign students and staff are fully vaccinated against the virus. Vaccination, boosters and testing when symptoms arise are still “strongly recommended” by the university but are no longer compelled for on-campus populations, UI System President Tim Killeen announced Thursday.

“Our protocols have evolved since the beginning of the pandemic based on changing conditions and guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the Illinois Department of Public Health and our own scientists,” Assistant Director of University Relations David Mercer wrote on Friday. “The first vaccination series, in particular, is proving less effective against transmission of the emerging subvariants of the virus.”

UI epidemiologist Rebecca Lee Smith said the UI’s explanation for eliminating the requirements “does not make sense” to her.

“What would make sense is requiring the bivalent booster, not dropping the vaccine requirement entirely,” Smith said. “We know the bivalent booster is effective against these new subvariants, so dropping the vaccine and testing requirements because the original vaccine isn’t as effective as it was does not make sense logically to me.”

Smith, an associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, served on the UI’s SHIELD: Target, Test, Tell committee, a group of scholars that regularly consulted with university leadership on its COVID-19 response.

This science team hasn’t met since last spring, Smith said.

In Urbana, the sole testing site intended for students and employees will soon phase out: the Illini Union’s COVID-19 testing room closes after Feb. 10.

The federally-funded SHIELD Illinois community testing site at Campus Recreation Center East will remain open, Chancellor Robert Jones said. Faculty, staff and students can pick up one take-home antigen test per day at the Illini Union, campus recreation sites and dormitories.

The UI plans to debut a wastewater surveillance system on all three campuses in spring semester, engineered by its Discovery Partners Institute and UI Chicago researchers. The technique can detect broad virus trends in the community by analyzing waste samples from sewers.

“What I think wastewater is useful for is for guiding our communications and potentially our guidelines — wastewater can tell us when cases are spiking, when we see a large number of cases, so we can let people know about the risk,” Smith said.

Though she doesn’t expect it to happen, Smith said she’d prefer the wastewater metric be used to require masks at certain levels.

“Wastewater testing will provide another tool for our universities to monitor the prevalence of the virus on their campuses, alongside testing,” Mercer said. “It will help inform ongoing decision-making about virus protocols.”

Looking at trends from the last five semesters of pandemic-era classes, cases will surge as students return to the UI campus in the next couple weeks, gradually die down during midterms, then perk up again after spring break, Smith said.

“I don’t know if we will see more or fewer cases,” she said. “Without the regular testing on campus, it’s hard to predict what it will look like. I’m certainly keeping an eye on what we know from the state and what we see from the hospital systems.

“We’re dropping down to the data most of the country has had up to this point.”

The Urbana-Champaign campus removed its classroom masking requirement last summer. Despite a far lower volume of tests, COVID-19 cases spiked after the first week of classes in the fall, up to a single-day high of 388 new cases on Aug. 29, 2022, prompting the university to “strongly recommend” masking in classes. Case numbers cratered in mid-September and have stayed.

The Illinois Department of Public Health announced 73 counties in the state, including Champaign, are at an elevated level of COVID-19 transmission as of Friday. Thursday night, 1,766 patients in Illinois were hospitalized for the virus. About 71 percent of the Illinois population has received the primary series of vaccines. More than 18 percent of eligible residents have received the bivalent booster. The state has reported nearly 4 million cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, including 35,814 deaths.

“COVID is still out there, it was the third leading cause of death in the U.S. last year — it’s still circulating and it’s still killing people,” Smith said. “Get yourself vaccinated and get the bivalent booster. If you’re going to wear your mask at all, this is the time to be wearing your mask.”

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