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Northeast schools try to prepare for COVID Omicron variant

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CDC
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Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19, formerly known as 2019-nCoV. The spherical viral particles, colorized blue, contain cross-section through the viral genome, seen as black dots.

As concern mounts about COVID-19 variant Omicron and its possible effect on the region, area school districts and colleges are keeping an eye on the new strain.

A University at Albany spokesman says the college is monitoring increasing regional case numbers, but sees no immediate need to change existing health and safety protocols, including a vaccine mandate and required indoor masking. About 800 surveillance tests are conducted weekly on campus, about 40 percent of which are among fully vaccinated individuals.

Across the Hudson, Dr. Leslie Lawrence, the Executive Director for Health and Wellness at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, says RPI is adhering to its "comprehensive strategy" to control cases on campus.

"First thing Monday morning, 8 a.m. You know, President Jackson, our president of the university here at RPI, called a meeting to discuss Omicron and where we should be, should it spread as quickly as we're expecting it to," Lawrence said. "And so we had these discussions. Now, first, I should probably set the table by saying that we have been one of the more conservative universities and how we've approached COVID from the beginning, in the sense that that we have always had mask mandates whenever people are inside. And in fact, last year, we had the mask mandates for people outside walking on our campus as well. You know, we have we limited the number of people that could be in spaces. So we have caps on each of our spaces here, that have carried through, we've never relaxed those caps for inside spaces. For outside, we have relaxed them to a degree."

Lawrence says RPI has an aggressive program with 1000 COVID tests done every day. He says that historically as viruses mutate they become more contagious but less severe, and if Omicron becomes a serious threat, total indoor and outdoor masking will be required.

Schenectady's Union College is on a trimester, so students are gone between Thanksgiving and New Year's. Before the new strain, officials had already decided to require mandatory testing for all members of the campus community for at least the first two weeks of the winter term, which begins Jan. 3rd. A spokesman says Union continues to monitor developments with the Omicron variant and will "adjust accordingly."

Shenendehowa Central School District officials say students and teachers continue masking and physical distancing, with contact tracing, quarantining and state mandated testing of the unvaccinated. Nearly all upstate New York schools have posted COVID policies on their websites.

Albany City School District Superintendent Kaweeda Adams says in-person learning continues with the standard precautions of social distancing, masking and handwashing. She says virtual instruction has been made available for students experiencing quarantine.

"We sent out a note with regard to our COVID positives that we were notified of over the holiday," Adams said. "And so with that, we send out the information each and every day, making sure that people know how many students were identified, and then how many contacts, and those contacts are contacted so that they know whether they are to be in school or whether they are to be quarantined."

Albany County Executive Dan McCoy says COVID hospitalizations Tuesday are at their highest number since February 23rd, with 131 new positive cases and 11 new hospitalizations. 57 county residents are hospitalized with 13 in the ICU.

"It's a tragedy we're still losing people almost two years later," said McCoy. "The only thing that we've been monitoring here in the county is the hospitalization with the ICUs."

County statistics aren’t broken down by variant, but two-thirds of those hospitalized with COVID are unvaccinated.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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