Please refer to the Health and Wellness Center and Center For Disease Control and Prevention for further guidance. (Carl Freyer/B&W Data & Graphics)

COVID-19 surge on campus sparks concern


Though masking, social distancing and other safety precautions are no longer required on Lehigh’s campus, new COVID-19 variants are affecting students, faculty and staff.

Lehigh’s Health and Wellness Center officially stopped tracking the number of positive COVID cases after last semester, but Steven Bowers, the center’s director, said there is “definitely a spike” of cases on Lehigh’s campus.

The current leading COVID variant in the United States is the EG.5 strain, accounting for 21.5% of nationwide cases. This variant is very similar to other Omicron strains of the virus, will cause the same symptoms and should still cause concern for the elderly and those with respiratory illnesses. 

According to most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there has been a 15.7% increase in COVID hospitalizations in the U.S. from the week of Aug. 20 to Aug. 26. 

This increase in cases can be seen in the Lehigh Valley, as there was a 22% increase in COVID hospital admissions between Aug. 25 and Sept. 8. 

In Northampton County, specifically, the CDC COVID Data Tracker map showed over a 28% increase in COVID hospitalizations from Aug. 20 to Aug. 26.

An email sent to the campus community from the Health and Wellness Center on Sept. 6 confirmed an increase in COVID cases on campus.

“But as of now, things are still relatively under control,” Bowers said.

Although the new COVID variant is “pretty contagious,” Bowers said the cases on Lehigh’s campus haven’t been serious. 

“It’s milder symptoms, a lot of people are vaccinated, a lot of people have had COVID,” Bowers said. “So the immunity levels are up.”

He attributed the cases spike to potential student negligence around the virus. He said the beginning of the semester is when students are prone to gather in large groups for social events, where it only takes a few people with COVID or other viral illnesses to start a mass spread.

Sophia Smith, ‘26, said when she tested positive at the beginning of September, it was her first time having COVID, and it seemed to affect her more than her friends who have had the virus before.

“My symptoms were definitely worse than my friends,” Smith said. “For the first day I really couldn’t do anything but rest.”  

But some cases, like Margot Lane, ‘26, who had COVID before, defied this narrative. She said when she tested positive recently, it was the worst case she’s had so far, with symptoms including vomiting, fatigue and a 105-degree fever.

Bowers said Lehigh’s protocols for those who test positive are in accordance with CDC guidelines.

He said testing positive requires five days of isolation while wearing a mask, and if symptoms improve after five days, students can reacclimate so long as they continue to wear a mask for another five days. A student who has been exposed to someone COVID-positive should also wear a mask for 10 days. 

“There are a lot of people not masking who know they’ve been exposed, and there are people who, I believe, are not isolating and coming out of isolation early,” Bowers said. “I think people need to be reminded of what needs to be done and the steps that need to be taken, and maybe just nudged a little bit to bring the masks back out while we’re having this little surge.”

He said there have been students who choose not to quarantine because they don’t want to miss class.

Lane said while most of her professors were responsive about her situation, some professors were not communicative. 

She said she sent emails to her professors with her positive test result, and while some of them, offered a Zoom link so she could join class remotely, others did not respond or would not offer a Zoom option.

“I’m definitely feeling behind, coming back,” Lane said.

Bowers said it’s been noticeable, especially for first-year students, that they don’t want to miss out on events, and they feel like isolating is holding them back from getting involved on campus. However, he said health and safety should be everyone’s No. 1 priority.

Smith said she and her friends tried to make the best of isolation since they were all quarantined together, so they rested, caught up on work and played games together. 

Bowers said COVID and changing variants are something the Lehigh community will always need to adapt to. Similar to last semester, he said he believes the campus community will continue to experience this spike and then see cases eventually go back down with time.

He emphasized people should keep up with vaccinations, wear masks when sick and wash their hands frequently.

“It’s really important to try to get the word back out there,” Bowers said. “COVID is still around, and people need to remember all the simple things that really go a long way in reducing the spread.”

According to an FDA news release, “the FDA approved “updated COVID-19 vaccines formulated to more closely target currently circulating variants and to provide better protection against serious consequences of COVID-19, including hospitalization and death.”

Specifically, 2023-2024 vaccines manufactured by ModernaTX Inc. and Pfizer Inc. have been updated to include a component that correlates to the Omicron variant XBB.1.5, and according to the news release, these mRNA vaccines are each approved for individuals 12 years of age and older and are authorized under emergency use for individuals 6 months through 11 years of age.

Also, according to the FDA, the bivalent Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines are no longer authorized for use in the United States.

“The updated vaccines are expected to provide good protection against COVID-19 from the currently circulating variants,” the news release reads. “Barring the emergence of a markedly more virulent variant, the FDA anticipates that the composition of COVID-19 vaccines may need to be updated annually, as is done for the seasonal influenza vaccine.”

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