Although Penn's weekly undergraduate COVID-19 positivity rate decreased from 0.97% to 0.59% this week, administrators urged students to be as vigilant as ever.
Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé said that highly transmissible COVID-19 variants have become more prevalent in the Philadelphia area, citing a recent Penn Medicine study. He also said that the University has seen a few cases this week among students who have already been fully vaccinated.
"The challenge has shifted. We need to remember the public health guidance more than ever, because it is now a race against the virus, [which is constantly mutating]," Dubé said.
Even with the concerning news regarding variants and vaccinated student cases, Dubé said it was a relief that last week's spike in cases did not become the trend the University feared, adding that it is clear that the vast majority of students are doing their part to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Last week's spike in cases was largely attributed to student travel during the two "Spring Stay" days on March 10 and 11.
Dubé said travel, above all else, is what spreads the variants of COVID-19. The Penn Medicine study found that more than one-third of COVID-19 cases in the Philadelphia area from late February and early March can be attributed to variants.
The study found cases of the B.1.1.7 variant — which at least two Penn students contracted in early February — along with the New York strain, B.1.526, and two different California strains, B.1.427 and B.1.429. The study also found cases similar to variants originating in South Africa, B.1.351, and Brazil, P.1. All six of these have been deemed variants of concern or of interest by experts.
Dubé said the increased presence of the variants — many of which have been shown to be much more easily transmitted — should act as a reminder for Penn students that now is the time, more than ever, to work to prevent the spread of the virus.
"If we all take precautions to minimize transmission of the virus now, we will not give the virus more opportunities to replicate and mutate. That is how the pandemic will dwindle down," Dubé said.
The other key factor in "winning the race against the pandemic," Dubé said, is the increasing availability of COVID-19 vaccines.
Still, vaccines are not completely effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, as a small number of fully vaccinated Penn students tested positive last week. The three vaccines available in the United States — Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson — are all over 85% effective in preventing severe COVID-19 cases.
Dubé said that all students — including those who have been fully vaccinated — should continue to follow public health guidelines and continue to wear their masks, wash their hands, socially distance, and socialize outdoors.
"If we make smart decisions, and we don't congregate inside, for example, then we are not giving the virus opportunities to jump from person to person. It's all these small decisions that can make a big difference," Dubé said.