College health association pushes surgical masks or better in new pandemic guidance

Dive Brief:

  • Colleges should distribute N95, KN95 or surgical-grade masks on their campuses and promote their use as the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads, according to new American College Health Association guidance
  • The blueprint, released Wednesday, also outlines when colleges should release those who test positive for the virus from isolation. ACHA says that colleges can implement five-day periods of isolation, as the Centers for Disease Control Prevention recommends. But unlike the CDC, the association says students should take a rapid test five days after symptoms appear to determine if they can rejoin the public. 
  • ACHA also acknowledged contact tracing may no longer be possible at some colleges because of omicron’s high transmissibility. 

Dive Insight:

ACHA has released periodic revisions to its pandemic guidance. It has encouraged colleges to work with health officials and recommended institutions require coronavirus vaccines after they were made widely available. 

In its last update in early December, the association continued to stress the importance of vaccination and recommended adults receive booster shots. It included this advice in its latest guidance. 

It comes as the U.S. has averaged at least 700,000 new coronavirus cases daily for much of month, fueled by the virulent omicron strain. The new variant will change colleges’ calculus, ACHA said. 

The association said colleges should employ a “multi-pronged approach” to testing for the virus, which involves students testing before coming to campus, as they arrive and regular surveillance screenings thereafter.

But because of omicron’s “pervasive nature,” these testing strategies may not be possible, the association said. At minimum, students should be tested if they’re symptomatic, regardless if they’ve been vaccinated.

ACHA laid out isolation protocols that differ slightly from the CDC’s recommendations. Colleges can choose whether they want to enforce either a five- or 10-day isolation period. 

If students test positive on their fifth day of isolation, they can test again on their seventh or eighth days. If this second test comes back negative, they can be released before the end of 10 days, the association said. 

“Serial testing allows students to return to class as soon as possible,” the guidance said. 

Colleges that don’t require tests as a condition for release from isolation should ensure students are either asymptomatic or have “symptom resolution,” which includes being fever free for at least a day. Those leaving isolation before 10 days should be provided with an N95, KN95 or surgical mask, which should be worn in all indoor public settings and crowded outdoor areas. 

Some colleges, such as the University of Southern California, are already requiring those on campus to wear surgical or higher-grade masks. 

Those who encounter an individual who tests positive for COVID-19 don’t have to quarantine if they’re asymptomatic, the association said. Those who are exposed should wear a high-grade mask and monitor for symptoms.

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