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Southern Miss students enter new school year among threat of omicron variant

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With the rise of the omicron variant of COVID-19, it’s become clear that Southern Miss’ faculty and students will have to face a fifth semester of the virus.

COVID-19 has impacted in-person learning since 2020, the start of the pandemic. Students were sent home for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester—having to complete all their classes completely online. 

This was a difficult time for the Golden Eagles, but they nevertheless persevered to a return to some normalcy last semester.

The fall 2021 semester was an adjustment as students learned how to navigate the world of in-person classes again. Campus events were limited in attendance and mask mandates were enforced in all campus buildings.

And now, the spring 2022 semester is filled with anxiety as the first day of classes approaches.

Like the rest of America, COVID-19 cases have drastically increased in Mississippi since the holiday break and are steadily rising as the days pass by. 

According to the Mississippi Department of Health (MSDH), there were 22,456 new cases of COVID-19 in the state reported just from Jan. 14 through Jan. 17.

The Moffitt Health Center (MHC) reported 181 positive tests of COVID-19 from Jan. 2 through Jan. 15 after only reporting 90 total positive cases throughout the entire fall semester.

Courtesy of MHC

Dr. Jeffrey Williams, the assistant director and physician at Moffitt, said that a rise of cases is inevitable with students returning to campus.

 “We definitely expect an increase in cases [and already are]. Fortunately, most cases have been mild,” Williams said.

This surge of COVID-19 is attributed to omicron being the most contagious variant yet but as with other waves of the virus, there is a peak and then a decline.

“Omicron is the most contagious variant that we’ve had so far in the pandemic, thus I think we will definitely see an increase in case numbers the first two weeks of the spring semester,”  Dr. Melissa Roberts, Executive Director at MHC said. “The good news is that once the omicron surge peaks, the case numbers will decrease rapidly. Current models suggest Omicron will peak in Mississippi by the first week of February.”

These numbers pose a threat to the start of the spring semester, continuing the importance of the university’s COVID-19 guidelines.

The guidelines have mostly remained the same but the university now recommends students, faculty and staff to receive a COVID-19 vaccination booster in addition to receiving your first two shots.

“Think of the vaccine as a “shield” or “bulletproof vest” which offers another layer of protection,” Dr. Melissa Roberts, Executive Director at MHC said. “The vaccine doesn’t always stop a person from getting infected, but it helps to keep symptoms mild and protects most people from hospitalization and death,” said Roberts.

“Omicron, for most vaccinated people, is truly a flu-like illness: misery for a few days then recovery,” Williams said. 

According to the Moffitt Health Center, everyone on campus should follow these physical distance practices to stay as safe as possible:

  • Stay at least 3 feet from others (about an arm’s length) at all times.
  • Do not gather in groups larger than the size allowable by the current federal, state and local executive orders.
  • Stay out of crowded places and avoid mass gatherings.
  • Handshaking and other forms of physical contact are discouraged.

 This is a condensed list, but a more detailed list can be found on the university’s website.

The use of face coverings is mandatory and must be worn indoors for all students, faculty, staff and visitors, regardless of their vaccination status. 

A new recommendation for this semester is the use of the Everbridge app, which is free to download on Google Play and Apple App Store. The app offers several features including self-assessment (with symptom check capabilities), is confidential and has contact tracing. 

This app is recommended for use by the entire Southern Miss population.  For the app to provide campus officials with accurate information, everyone is encouraged to participate. 

Temperature monitoring kiosks will remain in several locations across campus and those on campus are encouraged to check their temperatures daily, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Students and employees should stay home if they are sick or if a household member is diagnosed with COVID-19, regardless of their vaccination status. 

Williams said MHC has seen patients with a combination of these symptoms: headaches, body aches, sore throat, congestion, cough, chills with or without fever, stomachaches and diarrhea.

Those with COVID symptoms or who have had close contact with a COVID-positive individual are encouraged to contact the MHC  or their primary healthcare provider to discuss their symptoms and schedule an appointment for testing. 

The MHC has full diagnostic (PCR nasal swab and antigen testing) and surveillance (rapid antigen and antibody blood) testing available.

Employees should notify their supervisor and Human Resources if they are positive. Students should notify their instructors and the Dean of Students Office.

The Moffitt Health Center can be reached by phone at (601)-266-5390 or by email at clinicadmin@usm.edu.

SM2 Executive News Director Charlie Luttrell also contributed to this report.

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