GW public health experts provide guidance on the COVID-19 Delta variant as GW students, faculty and staff return to in-person learning and working.
As members of the George Washington University community return to campus this month, there are guidelines in place to promote the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff as the Delta variant, now the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States, surges nationwide.
The Delta variant is a more contagious strain of the COVID-19 virus than the one that circulated last fall. As COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise after an early summer decline, public health experts encourage the GW community to do its part by getting the vaccine, wearing a mask and following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
“People who are vaccinated and masked should feel they can return to campus with confidence,” said David Michaels, a professor in the GW Milken Institute School of Public Health and a former administrator of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “We have to recognize that we are all in this together. We have an obligation to each other to do what we can to stop the spread of the pandemic.”
GW is prioritizing the community’s health and safety by requiring vaccination, indoor mask-wearing and surveillance testing for all on-campus students, faculty and staff. All persons who enter university-owned or operated facilities are currently required to wear masks indoors as well. This layered approach to safely resume in-person teaching, learning and working is backed by science and public health experts.
“Even though the COVID cases have risen in the community, our layered approach to safety at GW makes working and learning on campus safer than most places,” said Ray Lucas, GW’s university COVID-19 coordinator and an associate professor of emergency medicine at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
GW’s Medical Advisory Group, a team of medical and public health experts chaired by Dr. Lucas, continues to monitor and evaluate the latest data about COVID-19 transmission in the GW community, as well as local and national public health guidance. The group worked closely with the university’s health and safety professionals to provide the GW community with guidance on public health, physical spaces, events and activities, masks, testing, campus access and other public health matters, detailed in Onward: GW’s Fall Operating Plan.
All members of the GW community are required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine unless they receive an approved exemption. More than 95% of GW’s students, faculty and staff are expected to be fully vaccinated with a small number of exemptions to achieve 100% compliance with the university’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Anyone who is not compliant will not be able to access campus.
“That high level of vaccination coverage should be reassuring to individuals,” said Amanda Castel, a professor of epidemiology in the Milken Institute SPH.
Each of the three vaccines authorized for emergency use in the United States—Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson—have proven to be effective at preventing serious illness and hospitalization stemming from the Delta variant. GW also accepts World Health Organization-authorized vaccines. While vaccinated individuals may acquire breakthrough infections, vaccination prevents the most serious consequences. Spread of the Delta variant is occurring widely in the United States and in the D.C. region. In the past few months, the small number of GW employees and students we have identified with breakthrough infections have had no symptoms or very mild symptoms, Dr. Lucas said. There has been no person-to-person spread within the campus community in several months.
Those returning to in-person activities this semester will participate in monthly COVID-19 surveillance testing to gain and maintain access to campus activities. GW’s surveillance test is a highly accurate PCR test using a self-administered nasal swab. Lab results are reviewed by GW clinicians and reported automatically to the D.C. health department. Monthly COVID-19 surveillance testing is another critical layer of GW’s fall plan, enabling the university to catch asymptomatic breakthrough cases within the community.
“As we bring people back on campus, we want to try to minimize the risk of transmission as much as possible,” Dr. Castel said. “We would rather err on the side of caution and make sure that anybody who does end up being infected is detected early so that we can rapidly respond and make sure that we hopefully stop or at least mitigate any spread in our campus community.”
Individuals who test positive—less than 1% of the on-campus population on average between March and August—will be required to isolate to slow the spread of COVID-19. Additionally, the Campus COVID Support Team performs contact tracing for every positive case at GW and will quarantine unvaccinated on-campus close contacts and provide appropriate guidance to on-campus close contacts. DC Health also contacts every person with a positive test and off- as well as on-campus contacts. Further, GW’s public health laboratory is identifying the COVID-19 variants that are circulating in our community.
The university reinstated its indoor mask mandate for all university-owned or -operated facilities in July. The requirement applies to all individuals—regardless of vaccination status—and is consistent with D.C.’s mask guidelines and CDC recommendations.
Many states and cities lifted their mask mandates in the late spring as vaccination rates rose and COVID-19 cases fell. At the time, guidance from the CDC said vaccinated individuals did not have to wear a mask inside.
As the Delta variant surged and data showed vaccinated individuals could transmit this extremely contagious strain to others, the CDC revised its guidance and now recommends fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors if they live in areas with substantial or high community transmission, which at this time captures nearly every county in the United States, and the entire D.C. metro region. This change has been a source of confusion for many, however, the Medical Advisory Group will monitor the situation in D.C. and will inform the GW community if transmission levels become low enough to change this requirement or if such practices change as the understanding of the virus evolves. GW also has the ability to go beyond CDC and D.C. requirements if needed to assure the safety of the university campus, Dr. Lucas said.
“The CDC is continually evaluating data and making changes. That's going to keep people safe, rather than just coming out with an answer and sticking to it,” he said. “This is a new disease, and you have to be open to evolving your recommendations as we learn more.”
The CDC also recommends face masks for those who cannot socially distance in crowded outdoor spaces.
After getting vaccinated, the most important thing an individual can do to protect themselves and others is to wear an adequate face covering, Dr. Michaels said. Wearing an N95 or KN95 or a surgical mask, will reduce the spread of respiratory aerosols and droplets. Regardless of the type of face covering, it is important that it be tightly fitted to the face, kept clean and eventually properly disposed of when no longer usable.
Additional campus safety improvements include a major HVAC optimization project. The first phase of the project—a $2.4 million upgrade of eight residential halls to align the buildings’ mechanical capacities with recommended COVID-19 and other safety guidelines—wrapped up in February.
Doing your part
If you develop symptoms of COVID-19, students, faculty and staff should not go to work or class and should be tested for COVID-19 on the Foggy Bottom campus outside the monthly testing protocol. If unsure of what to do, students should contact a healthcare provider at Colonial Health, and faculty and staff should contact Occupational Health for guidance.
“Everyone should do their part and stay safe both on and off campus,” Dr. Lucas said. “As cases rise in the community, everyone should follow the D.C. indoor mask mandate and avoid crowds when possible. We saw some student cases related to off-campus parties this past year. Everyone is encouraged to choose wisely and stay safe with their off-campus activities.”
The university continues to monitor COVID-19 cases globally, locally and within the GW population and is prepared to make alterations to its on-campus plan as needed. If the analysis of current data suggests it is appropriate or if local, state or federal guidance changes, the Medical Advisory Group and Dr. Lucas may recommend changes to GW’s public health behaviors, surveillance testing frequency, campus access policies and instructional modalities to maintain a safe environment for students, faculty, staff and guests. Updates on guidance and access will be announced by email and posted to onward.gwu.edu.