University, Riley County prepare for spring semester amid COVID-19 case surge

Lafene Student Health Center. (Archive photo by Alex Todd | Collegian Media Group)

Riley County reported its highest jump in COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, Jan. 12, since the beginning of the pandemic. There are currently 1,017 active cases in Riley County, with a 14-day positivity rate of 20.19 percent.

Additionally, the county reported that the Kansas Department of Health and Environment identified at least five cases of the Omicron variant in Riley County. Vivienne Uccello, public information officer for the city of Manhattan, said the KDHE tests only about two percent of the positive samples it processes for variants.

Evidence suggests infections from Omicron might be milder, Uccello said. However, since a percentage of the population is still vulnerable, the more people infected with COVID-19, the more people will end up hospitalized, she said.

“So what we hope for everyone is that if they are positive, that they have a very mild case or even have no symptoms — we’ve had cases like that still, that someone tests positive and they don’t have any symptoms at all,” Uccello said. “And of course, that is always the hope — that somebody doesn’t get incredibly sick. Unfortunately, as we look at kind of the situation across Kansas, hospitals are filling up, and that is a serious concern.”

The county also recently announced it can no longer provide contact tracing for all individuals who test positive for COVID-19 because of the sheer number of cases it is receiving.

Health department director Julie Gibbs said that while Manhattan has been able to stay afloat, it is becoming difficult to transfer patients or keep them in the hospital because of strained facilities in the city and across the state.

“We’re kind of at the point where we didn’t want to be — where we’ve tried to prevent ourselves from being this whole time,” Gibbs said. “And now, the students coming back that adds another layer — or could add another layer — to this whole thing. Just adding more numbers, possible cases. So we really encourage the students when they come back to continue those safety precautions that we’ve been preaching this whole time.”

COVID-19 at Kansas State

In the next few days, droves of students will return to Manhattan after spending weeks in their home counties — some of which are experiencing high positivity rates. A 30.5 percent 7-day positivity was seen in Johnson County last week.

For the week of Jan. 3 through 7, the campus positivity rate at K-State jumped to 26.35 percent after remaining under 10 percent since November.

Aryn Price, director of risk management and quality improvement at Lafene Health Center, said individuals being tested at Lafene are primarily symptomatic.

Thomas Lane, vice president of student life and dean of students, said the university is preparing for the return of students this semester.

“We’re committed to in-person learning, with the understanding that faculty have the ability to temporarily adjust their class modality based upon how the pandemic is impacting their class,” Lane said.

Price said Lafene will be receiving more testing machines to offer additional testing, and the university is ensuring that students in isolation are well cared for.

Additionally, Lane said supervisors are encouraged to provide hybrid work environments where appropriate, and K-State is currently maintaining its mask mandate.

Lane also said the university is working to maintain an in-person learning environment.

“We know that’s important for students, we know it’s important for students’ mental health, we know that for many of our students, the completely online or remote environment is not conducive to their academic progress,” Lane said. “And so we’re committed to that in-person learning environment. But of course, with a pandemic, things can change and we remain to be flexible and giving each other grace as we continue to navigate through these unprecedented times,”

Students who are immunocompromised or at high risk are encouraged to contact the Student Access Center to work out accommodations they might need, Lane said.

“I think we’re beginning to recognize that COVID is going to be with us for the foreseeable future and that we need to figure out ways to coexist with it without completely disrupting our lives,” Lane said. “And so I think that the steps that we’re taking are congruent with that approach.”

Methods of Mitigation

Gibbs, Uccello, Price and Lane all said they encourage students to get vaccinated if they haven’t.

“That’s one of the most important things that any student can do — if they’re not vaccinated, and it’s safe for them to do so, to get vaccinated,” Lane said. “We know that getting vaccinated and being boosted is the best preventative measure for serious illness or hospitalization.”

Lafene continues to offer appointments for vaccinations, Price said.

Additionally, pharmacies in the area are offering vaccinations, Uccello said. The health department also offers vaccinations.

Students are encouraged to continue wearing masks indoors — and it is still required inside campus buildings. Gibbs said students should continue to wear cloth masks if that is all they have available.

“There is evidence out there saying that you should look more toward an N95 or surgical mask with this new variant but right now, just whatever you have,” Gibbs said. “Continue to mask up, and I think … it’s more important to wear your mask right, whatever mask you wear.”

Further guidance on masking can be found on the Centers for Disease Control website.

The CDC recently updated its isolation and quarantine guidelines for COVID-19, and the KDHE followed suit. The new guidelines shorten both the isolation and quarantine times.

K-State has also updated its isolation and quarantine guidelines to reflect these changes.

Gibbs said the health department is primarily preparing for the incoming students by providing ample information that is consistent with K-State.

“K-State has done a great job of communicating with us, with all of their messaging and with what kind of testing they’re doing and how their vaccination efforts are going,” Gibbs said. “So we have a good relationship with the university and with Lafene Health Center, so that’s good — we have that on our side.”

Additionally, Gibbs said the health department is working on ensuring they have enough testing and vaccine supplies.

Uccello said students should take all the safety precautions they have been hearing about since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“So wear a mask if you’re out in public, if you are sick at all, even if you think you just have a little cold or something mild, please stay home,” Uccello said. “It’s possible that you have one of those mild cases and could still spread the virus to somebody who’s more vulnerable.”

Uccello also encouraged students to get their information from reputable sources like a medical provider at Lafene or the CDC or KDHE websites.

“We’re always happy when students return to town — they’re an important part of our community,” Uccello said. “We just encourage everybody to take precautions and stay safe … So do everything in your power to protect yourself and fellow students and your family members, and we would very much appreciate it — we want you to stay healthy.”

Hi there! I'm Julie Freijat. I'm the managing editor of the Collegian. In the past, I've served as an editor on the news and culture desks and worked closely with the multimedia staff. I love science and technology, hate poor movie dialogue and my favorite subreddit is r/truecrime.