March 7, 2022

COVID-19: UIC, Chicago Pulling Through Omicron Surge

By Hannah Ding

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Wenjun Zheng, a second-year UIC Architecture student, returned to the United States in Fall 2021 after more than a year of online instruction in China. 

Zheng said he preferred online learning as opposed to in-person or hybrid classes.

“That way, I can get an internship and absorb more experiences from it when I am having the online classes,” Zheng said. “As an international student, I cannot work off-campus without complicated procedures in the U.S.”

According to Foreign Academic Students, an F-1 nonimmigrant student can only begin the internship after the designated school official (DSO) has authorized Curricular Practical Training (CPT) on the student’s Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status.

“Plus, if I am allowed to take online classes in a country with fewer cases,” Zheng said. “I would definitely do it for my health and safety.”

Based on the data from Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, as of March 6, the United States ranks third in the world in the COVID-19 cases over the past 28 days, and ranks first in the deaths of both total and the past 28 days. Cook County ranks fourth  among all counties in the country.

Zheng and many other students returned to a much different campus for spring semester 2022. On Dec. 21, UIC had announced that Spring 2022 would start with two weeks of online instruction, since the Omicron variant led to a rapid rise in positive COVID-19 cases across Illinois and the nation.

The university said that in-person classes would resume on Jan. 24, which they did. According to UIC COVID-19 Dashboard, 10,406 campus saliva tests were given on the week of Jan. 23 with a 2.1% positivity rate, a decrease of 5.8 percentage points from Jan.2 when the Omicron variant was prominent.

The U.S. had double-digit percentage increases in COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant in December and January. On Jan. 24, the same day of UIC reopening campus, based on the data from Johns Hopkins University, the daily positivity rate for the U.S. rose to 23.1%, whereas the rate for Illinois was 11.6%.

Based on the same data from Johns Hopkins, as of March 6, the positivity rate has dropped to 3.9% nationally, and 1.4% for Illinois. According to Chicago Data Portal, only 7.1 positive cases were confirmed per 100,000 tests in Chicago, which demonstrates that the city is under a 1% positivity rate for the first time since 2020. 

UIC also has improved. Based on the UIC COVID-19 Dashboard, the positivity rate has reached 0.27% in the week of Feb. 27, the lowest since the appearance of the Omicron variant.

On Feb. 28, the university announced that people will not be required to wear masks at campus recreation centers, student centers, residence halls, offices, etc, whereas masks are still mandatory in the classroom. This fell in accordance with the pullback of COVID-19 mandates imposed by the city and state. 

Though the current vaccines have limited effectiveness to fight against omicron, they still reduce the severity to a large extent. According to a Dec. 7 campus announcement, 96% of the students and staff on campus have been vaccinated.  

Jessica Justman, a UIC assistant academic director, is primarily working with international students in their first year of their studies and having them be guided through their first year navigating UIC. 

Justman said she thinks the reason for this in-person semester is that the university is experiencing a much better situation in the pandemic compared to two years ago because of the vaccines and experiences against the virus, though the current number of campus daily cases is hundreds of times higher than when the virus initially appeared on campus based on the data from UIC COVID-19 Dashboard.

“I think with new information comes new practice,” Justman said. “Everybody has adapted to what the experts are saying in terms of the information that’s available now.”

Zheng was not the only UIC student who didn’t want to take classes physically in the United States due to the pandemic. According to the data from UIC Student Data Book Dashboard, the number of Asian students enrolled in Fall 2019 was decreased by 19% from 436 to 355 in Fall 2021.

Compared to the international students, local students of UIC might have very different opinions since most of them have the only home, the United States, and they don’t need to worry about foreigners’ inconvenience of working here.

Charles White, also a second-year architecture student, grew up in Chicago. 

“I have a difficult time forcing myself to pay attention online or engaging with the classwork,” White said. “That being said, sometimes the commute for an in-person class doesn’t really outweigh the benefits of actually being there in person, if it’s just someone talking to you.”

Indeed, many students at UIC are looking for a balance, which some say may be the hybrid mode with spending much time commuting and achieving effective learning. Students, like White, majoring in majors that contain massive lab classes might prefer in-person classes than other students, since they are required to do extensive live practice, and need special equipment and machines.

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White said he agreed with the university’s decision regarding in-person Spring 2022 from the aspect of pandemic, when asked what he wished the instruction mode of this semester would be.

“I think everyone understands the risks involved,” White said. “They’re not going to really get sick, they’re not going to die, lose lung capacity and stuff.”

Based on the data from Chicago Data Portal, Chicago COVID-19 cases for people ages 18-29 reached its peak to 34,033 cases in the last quarter of 2021,  as the cases of total population also reached 137,815 cases. However, the death number of people aged 18-29 became the lowest in the past year, and is even less than 1.5% of the total death number of 2021.

White said that if the school wants to ease mask restrictions, they need to be stringent about the vaccine requirement.

“I’ve heard people in my classes brag about how they haven’t gotten the vaccine,” White said. “I don’t think the mask restrictions should be eased if there’s still students that are refusing to get the vaccine and choosing to do the rapid test every day, because the route of the test isn’t 100%.”

Students not being boosted can take saliva tests on campus every seven days or do the rapid tests at home to get the daily pass, which allows them to enter the classrooms at UIC.

Easing the mask requirement without tightening the vaccination policy on campus might be offering undetected viruses an opportunity to diffuse among students and staff of UIC. 

Emily Anthes wrote in How Accurate Are At-Home Covid Tests? Here’s a Quick Guide: “Some of the at-home rapid antigen tests have an overall sensitivity of roughly 85 percent, which means that they are catching roughly 85 percent of people who are infected with the virus and missing 15 percent.”

Though White said UIC’s decision of the in-person semester is reasonable based on the campus COVID-19 data, his attitude toward the Omicron variant’s influence on campus in the future is still unclear.

“I think it seems like a bit of a gamble, a bit of a dice roll,” he said.

What Do You Think?

How do you think UIC handled the Omicron variant and reopening campus? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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