U of I, Champaign County health officials “strongly recommend” masks

CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, Ill. (WCIA) — Masks are back on the University of Illinois campus as students begin their second week of school. A memo that university chancellor Robert Jones sent to students, faculty and staff Sunday evening strongly recommends using “high-quality face coverings” in the classroom “for the next few weeks.”

“For the next three to four weeks, it’s very important for everyone to be alert,” McKinley Health Center Director Awais Vaid said Monday.

The university’s 7-day positive rate neared 15% on Monday and almost 20% of tests taken by students came back positive. Waid said that’s similar to the percentage the school saw when students returned in 2020 and 2021.

“This week and next week could be critical for us. That’s why it was the Chancellor’s strongly worded reminder that masks are still very good options,” Weid continued.

University leaders expect cases to peak during that time, the memo said.

“In terms of hospitalizations, in terms of deaths, in terms of ICU admissions, in terms of overburdening the health care system, it’s not being done,” Weid said, distinguishing this spike from those in years past. “But that doesn’t mean people aren’t getting infected.”

“Even though it’s like, ‘Oh, we still have to wear masks and this thing still happens,’ it’s definitely still good.” You never want to forget what’s going on around you, right?” U of I sophomore Ilya Esho said in support of the university’s strong recommendation.

The data showing that the positivity rate has risen is also a bit skewed, Weid said, because testing is not as widely available as it has been in the past few years.

“So we’re only getting a small snapshot of what’s going on,” he added.

“Also, as you know, contact tracing is completely rejected at the state level, very little happens at the local level.”

Even with limited data, the director and epidemiologist by trade said, “It looks like we’re heading in a direction where we could see a significant volume of cases this week.”

It’s all part of the transition to the endemic phase of the coronavirus response, according to Weid, where we learn to live with the virus instead of letting it disrupt society.

The decision to strongly recommend masks comes from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state guidelines for communities dealing with high rates of transmission. The campus community and Champaign County were considered high transmission areas Monday.

“The chancellor has the discretion to authorize it, but, you know, we’ve always tried to be very consistent with federal state and local guidelines,” Weid added.

Student Sea at the college Monday, whose college experience is largely masked, had mixed responses to the recommendation. Less than a third wore them on the crowded commute between classes, but more said they did or would wear them in the classroom.

“I think the masks are pretty symbolic because they represent this pandemic,” sophomore Shawn Liu said. “And the fact that we’re slowly getting rid of it, you know, is kind of letting it all go.”

“I feel more comfortable with just masks,” simply said an elderly man who did not want to be identified by name.

“I was happy to see people, and it made you appreciate it more once we were able to take off the masks and get back together with people,” freshman Tommy Miller said, adding that he won’t be wearing a mask to class. He cited antibodies from a recent COVID-19 infection.

“I think overall it lets me know that the school wants safety,” Esho concluded.

Saliva-based testing is still available to students at Illini Union. So far, the cases have mostly been asymptomatic, Weid said.

The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District also strongly recommends that everyone wear a mask in indoor public places. The news came today after Administrator Julie Pride said cases in the community and on campus combined have increased by about 50 percent in the past week.

MESSAGE FROM CUPHD:

The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District (CUPHD) announces that community transmission of COVID-19 in Champaign County is high and strongly recommends that everyone wear a mask when indoors in public places. The transmission rate is based on three metrics, which include the rate of new cases per 100,000 population, the percentage of staffed inpatient beds occupied by patients with COVID-19, and new COVID-19 admissions per 100,000 population.

According to Julie Pride, CUPHD administrator, “The number of cases in the community and on campus has increased by about 50% in the last one week. Based on the trends of previous years, we are likely to have a higher spread in the next 10 days. Masking up indoors and staying at home when sick with symptoms will help reduce this spread.”

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