USD’s fall 2021 semester was promised as a “back to normal” semester for on-campus learning after the disruptions caused by the ongoing pandemic. More than a month in, COVID-19 remains a consideration for the university.
Kevin O’Kelley, assistant vice president of research compliance and the head of USD’s COVID-19 Task Force, said the difference in the university’s approach largely comes from a greater degree of preparation.
“Last year, we had a pretty bad fall semester in that we underprepared,” O’Kelley said. “We were reactive. When the cases were high, we did one more thing. The cases went up, we did one more thing. We were always one step behind COVID.”
Rachel Olson, director of clinic operations at the Sanford Vermillion Clinic, said the clinic’s main role in cooperation with the university’s management of COVID-19 has been in testing and vaccinations.
“We ended last spring just starting to kind of get to the public as we were phasing for vaccines. So we didn’t have a really good opportunity to get to those students before they left for the end of the semester,” Olson said. “So really trying to catch those individuals who maybe didn’t get their COVID vaccine over summer break, and to provide opportunities throughout the semester to get that COVID vaccine.”
Olson said one area the clinic is proud of in the response is the increase in testing capacity through various university and community programs.
“We’re testing here at our facility, but the university is doing testing, some of our partners in the community are also doing testing,” Olson said. “So really just making that testing more and more available.”
O’Kelley said there have been fewer cases in the campus community than expected due to a higher-than-expected vaccination rate among USD students.
“When you look at the SIR curve (number of susceptible, infected and recovered individuals), if you look at the math numbers of how diseases transmit in a community…
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the math is really amazing that when you reach a certain number of people immune, the transmission rate drops precipitously,” O’Kelley said.
O’Kelley said the university relied on vaccination rates for South Dakotans between the ages of 18 and 24, about 36% of whom are vaccinated. Based on this vaccination rate, the university expected higher transmission than the campus is currently experiencing.
“We were pleasantly surprised and are still pleasantly surprised that our numbers are far below what we anticipated,” O’Kelley said. “It means that we have a greater number of people vaccinated and/or immune than we had anticipated.”
O’Kelley said the higher vaccination rate for USD students compared to other South Dakotans most likely comes from students in the health sciences field who are required to get vaccinated as part of their work in nursing homes and at Avera and Sanford hospitals.
Even though the case numbers are lower than expected, O’Kelley said students who think they might be sick should get tested in the Muenster University Center (MUC), where free testing is offered Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“Our numbers have been lower than expected, but every one of those numbers is a sick student, and they’re not happy campers,” O’Kelley said. “Coronavirus is not like, you blow it off. If you’re asymptomatic, you never know you’re sick, that’s one thing, but if you get sick and you get tested, you’re positive, you’re not going to have a good week.”
O’Kelley encourages students to get vaccinated, but to also follow guidelines on masks, handwashing and staying home when sick.
“COVID is still here, it’s not over,” O’Kelley said. “So please get vaccinated, please be hygienic and please stay healthy.”