UTD’s response to the omicron wave in the DFW area includes a number of policies beyond the week-long postponement of the semester and subsequent transition to online instruction through Feb. 4.
Due to the high transmissibility of the omicron variant and the increased demand for testing in the North Texas region, the randomized surveillance testing program has been temporarily suspended. Faculty choosing to teach in-person are being asked to utilize seating charts to aid the contact tracing process, which will remain the norm when the University returns to in-person instruction. Vice President and Chief of Staff Rafael Martín said that UTD continues to closely monitor the status of omicron cases locally and expects that a final verdict on whether Feb. 7 will mark the date of that return will be made by the end of the week.
“[The decision to return] is about the totality of circumstances and environment that we’re facing in the North Texas region. We’ve set February 7 as our date to return to in-person classes,” Martín said, “and we will make a decision at the latest by a week from [Jan. 21] about whether or not we’re going to hold to that, or whether we’re going to extend kind-of-remote instruction for an additional period. So we will give the campus community at least a full week’s notice before we make that determination.”
Martín emphasized that the decision to return is not being made based off the number of positive tests on any single day, but rather in the context of how COVID-19 – specifically, the omicron variant – is impacting relevant communities. That list begins with the surrounding municipalities, but also includes analysis of broader public-health trends. Particular attention is being paid to the recovery trajectory of previous hotspots, like regions of South Africa, which have almost uniformly seen a rapid spike in case counts accompanied by an equally-sharp decline after a few weeks – and modelling by Associate Professor Dr. Timothy Bray suggests the metroplex may experience an even sharper trajectory once transmission plateaus.
In light of that, Martín said “this weekend and the early part of next week should give us a good indication of whether we are actually on a decline and how steep that decline is and what that means projecting out to February 7. That’ll give us confidence to say, ‘okay, February 7 looks like we’re going to be back to levels where we were operating in person classes at full density,’ or ‘maybe we need to let this go another week or so to allow those case levels to decline even further before we bring back [instruction] on campus.’”
If coronavirus incidence on campus does subside to levels comparable to last semester, Martín also reported the on-campus surveillance testing would return. For the moment, the suspension is a question of practicality – between surveillance, athletics and symptomatic testing, Martín said over 30% of the tests being conducted were returning positive, solidifying that COVID-19 is present within the community. And because UTSW is experiencing increased demand for testing, tests are taking up to three days to process – by which point a randomly-identified patient may have already transmitted the variant to any number of peers.
“Right now, it just doesn’t make any sense because it’s not going to give us any actionable information,” Martín said. “We know it’s out there and very prevalent at the moment, so what we’re trying to do is ensure that we can test close contacts or symptomatic people that have to be on campus – facilities workers, the police department, etc. – without putting too much strain on the system.”
Ultimately, Martín said that while the University has chosen to err on the side of caution – a decision he noted was influenced directly by the feedback of both students and employees – returning to in-person operations is a priority, once it is prudent. Until then,
“[We’re] continuing to encourage students – and others in our community – to get vaccinated, get boosted. If you’re eligible, wear your masks, do what the signs say, you know all the list by now. That’s our best offense.”