By Madeleine Beck
While coronavirus cases are surging across California and overwhelming intensive care units, the country’s top infectious disease expert has said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that college students can return to campus in the fall.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he anticipates that COVID-19 vaccines will begin to become widely available to the general public in March and April, and that immunization combined with aggressive testing of students would bode well for an in-person school year.
“If we do that efficiently, and the doses of vaccine come in… by the time we get to April, May, June, July, August, we can get the overwhelming majority of the people in this country vaccinated so that by the time we get to the 2021-2022 term, I think we could be in good shape,” Fauci said.
Fauci made the comments in a live-streamed conversation with California State University Chancellor Tim White. The university, one of the first nationwide to pivot to online education this spring, announced last week it expects its nearly 500,000 students will return to in-person learning in the fall of 2021, citing the progress on producing COVID-19 vaccines. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has so far authorized two separate vaccines, made by Pfizer and Moderna, for inoculation against the virus.
“While we are currently going through a very difficult surge in the pandemic, there is light at the end of the tunnel,” White said in announcing the plan.
As President-elect Joe Biden’s selected chief medical adviser, Fauci will work with the Biden administration to prioritize vaccinating teachers and doing surveillance testing at K-12 schools and universities to hasten the return to in-person learning, he said.
No decision has been made on whether the CSU system will require students or professors to receive a COVID-19 vaccination or what role campus health centers might play in vaccine distribution, CSU spokesperson Mike Uhlenkamp wrote in an email. However, there is precedent for colleges to require students to be vaccinated. The CSU system currently requires that students show proof they’ve been inoculated against measles, mumps and rubella, hepatitis, and several other diseases.
The best COVID-19 prevention results on campuses have come from a combination of testing students prior to their return to campus, conducting intermittent surveillance testing, and providing a separate floor or dorm to house infected students, Fauci said.
Surveillance testing — monitoring the entire student population to find outbreaks and isolating those who test positive — has been made easier due to the development of rapid antigen testing, which can yield results within 15 minutes. They are “not as sensitive (as regular COVID-19 tests), but can give you a considerable amount of important information,” Fauci said.
Currently, most CSU campuses do not require across-the-board COVID-19 testing — as the University of California and a number of private colleges have done — though San Diego State University has recently mandated testing for students living on campus and taking in-person classes. Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo has announced that it will do the same for winter quarter, according to the student newspaper, Mustang News. A few CSU campuses have seen large COVID-19 outbreaks, with more than 2,000 students and employees infected at San Diego State.
Uhlenkamp said the CSU will continue to let each campus design its own testing policy. “We have encouraged them to review their respective plans and reassess in light of the recent surges throughout the state,” he said.
Asked how schools and universities can combat the misinformation and distrust of science that has helped fuel the virus’s spread, Fauci said his approach is not to be confrontational, but instead to point out examples of how science has been helpful in the past.
“If you look at and point out to them examples of the important fruits of science and what science has brought to us, I think that we can convince a substantial proportion of the people — who for one reason or another have established an anti-science approach — that we can win them back,” he said.
Beck is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation. Follow the College Journalism Network on Twitter at @collegebeatca.