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Penn's COVID case count doubled, with 801 positive results during the week from April 10 to April 16. Credit: Adrienne Evans

Penn’s COVID-19 case count more than doubled last week after Spring Fling weekend, reaching the highest number of positive tests in 13 weeks, at the same time that Philadelphia is on the brink of shifting to a stricter response tier.

A total of 801 community members tested positive for COVID-19 during the week from April 10 to April 16 — up 377 from the week before. Undergraduates comprised over 70% of new cases, with 573 positive results, the highest in 10 weeks. Graduate students made up 170 new cases. The two populations combined for more than 90% of positive cases in the past week.

Administrators wrote on the COVID-19 Dashboard that new transmissions continue to be primarily associated with social gatherings, such as parties, and household exposures. 

Executive Director of Public Health and Wellbeing Ashlee Halbritter told The Daily Pennsylvanian that the Wellness Team will continue to follow the data before making any further revisions to the University’s public health guidance. The future course of in-person finals and end-of-semester activities will be guided by these recommendations, Halbritter said, adding that the only additional protective layer that has been added is masking indoors.

“While we can always enforce more stringent requirements, we must continue to implement and follow the guidance and requirements the City of Philadelphia imposes,” Halbritter said. “It is worth noting that, unlike in the past, we have not seen a commensurate increase in hospitalizations due to COVID-19, which is reassuring.”

According to research conducted by Penn Medicine in collaboration with Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the BA.2 Omicron subvariant has become the dominant strain of COVID-19 found across the Delaware River Valley in recent weeks.

“We’ve known all along that BA.2 is far more transmissible, and I think we’re just seeing people engaging in normal social interactions, in close proximity to one another indoors, where food and drink are being shared,” Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé said. “That’s the trifecta — the perfect conditions for people to be exposed and possibly infected.”

Dubé clarified that current on-campus cases have exhibited mostly mild symptoms. 

“While there may be more people becoming infected, people are not more sick or more likely to become hospitalized,” Dubé said. “That’s a good sign.”

The number of students in isolation has increased for a sixth consecutive week to 469 — up from 345 the week before, and the highest recorded number of students in isolation in 10 weeks, since the week from Jan. 30 to Feb. 5

In an April 13 email to the Penn community, Dubé announced that students who test positive for COVID-19 may be required to isolate in place as it neared capacity in isolation housing, a policy that remains ongoing through this week. 

Students in college housing who have a roommate that tests positive for COVID-19 will have to isolate in place depending on their vaccination status. 

If the student does not test positive and is up-to-date with COVID-19 vaccinations — which the University describes as being both fully vaccinated and boosted — they will not have to isolate and may continue living in the shared living space, while also attending classes and participating in University activities. 

If the student is not up-to-date with COVID-19 vaccinations, the student must quarantine in place in accordance with Penn’s public health guidance.

All eligible students must upload their booster information into their Student Health Portal if they have not done so already.

Halbritter told the DP on April 13 that Public Health and Wellbeing continues to work closely with the Office of Environmental Health and Radiation Safety and Penn’s Maintenance and Housekeeping Department to ensure the cleanliness of College House facilities.

On-campus cases reflect a surge in positivity across Philadelphia County, which is now averaging 238 cases per day as of April 18 — a 166% increase in the last two weeks.

The City of Philadelphia uses key metrics to determine the extent of COVID-19 precautions and to regulate the move from one response tier to another. Since March 2, Philadelphia had been operating under the “All Clear” precautions tier — the lowest of four — which ended the requirement for individuals to wear a mask indoors.

On April 11, with data reported by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, the city moved immediately into the “Mask Precautions” tier, which returned the mask mandate for public indoor spaces.

A trend of rising positivity across the county may be enough to trigger a shift to response tier three — “Caution” — by next Monday, April 25. “Caution” is enacted if at least two of the three following conditions are met: citywide new cases per day are above 225 but below 500, hospitalizations are between 100 and 500, and cases have risen by more than 50% in the previous 10 days.

If the City reports an increase of even one new case per day next week, it will likely trigger a shift to the “Caution” response tier, which would bring back proof of vaccinations for indoor dining across the city. 

In an April 13 email, University administrators announced Penn’s new Levels of Protective Measures, closely mirroring the response levels of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. The University is currently operating at Protective Measures Level 2: “Awareness," which requires indoor masking in alignment with City guidance. If the City of Philadelphia moves to tier three, Penn will also shift to its “Caution” level, which would require proof of vaccination for all campus activities where food and drink are being served. 

Should Philadelphia move to response tier three, the University might also implement additional protective measures, such as surveillance testing of all community members, occupancy limits, physical distancing, and limits on social gatherings.

Halbritter said that students should continue utilizing outdoor spaces whenever possible and to allow for social distancing when food and drink are being shared in a group setting indoors. Halbritter also encouraged students to practice good hand hygiene and use PennOpen Pass to report symptoms, exposures, and at-home positive test results.

“Even if you receive a negative COVID-19 test, continue to mask, wash hands, and stay home if you’re feeling sick,” Halbritter said.

After a federal court ruling blocked a national mask mandate on airplanes and mass transit systems on April 18, the nation's largest airline companies including Delta Airlines, United Airlines, and Alaska Airlines made masking optional for customers.

In Philadelphia, SEPTA, PATCO, New Jersey Transit, and Amtrak dropped their mask mandates. Masks remain required in the Philadelphia International Airport, the airport tweeted, citing the City’s indoor mask mandate.

On campus, Halbritter said that masks remain required on Penn Transit, in addition to public indoor spaces.