College Prepares for Spring Vaccination Campaign, Urges Caution as COVID-19 Variants Spread


Madison Olsen

Students are required to show green health passes to dining employees as part of new COVID-19 precautions implemented for the spring semester.

As students schlepped their belongings across campus this week, moving in for their third semester impacted by COVID-19, new pandemic developments have been cause for both hope and concern. The College is preparing to inoculate nearly 3,000 students and employees against the virus this spring. Meanwhile, senior administrators urge the campus community to be more careful than ever as new, more transmissible coronavirus variants spread across Ohio.


A More Transmissible Strain in Northeast Ohio

In late January, University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center found multiple emerging COVID-19 variants — including the more infectious U.K. variant — in samples from Northeast Ohio patients dating as far back as December 2020. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expect that the U.K. variant will become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March.

“If you ask me about the thing that I’m most concerned about this year in the context of COVID, it is that,” President Carmen Twillie Ambar said of the new variants. 

President Ambar believes that increased community spread, in addition to the new mutations, could mean more cases this semester. 

“I’m happy to be proven wrong, but I don’t think we can expect the types of numbers that we had last term in terms of zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, for multiple weeks,” President Ambar said. “Community spread is such that I think that may be unrealistic. I think we’re going to have to maybe accept that we may have some positive tests that show up.”

This semester, the College plans to administer rapid tests to symptomatic students in addition to its routine PCR testing. In the event of an outbreak, COVID-19 Campus Health Coordinator Katie Gravens explained that the College may institute extra mitigation measures. 

President Ambar urged students not to relax their COVID-19 precautions, especially given that Oberlin has only seen the virus spread when students were not complying with the College’s guidelines.

“We haven’t been able to trace any moment where, because someone was in a classroom together, transmission happened,” she said. “The only time we’ve had any challenges have been when adherence didn’t happen. That’s when we had these moments of, ‘Oh, I was in the room with this person and didn’t have my mask on,’ and that sort of thing. What I would say to everyone is that we cannot afford to be fatigued about this. Despite contrary viewpoints, this pandemic is simply not over.”


The College’s Vaccine Distribution Center

The College is seeking approval from the Ohio Department of Health to be a point of vaccine distribution. Chief of Staff David Hertz explained that coronavirus precautions remain paramount until the College can administer a vaccine and begin relaxing some virus mitigation measures. 

“We need to be even more vigilant than we were last semester,” Hertz said. “It’s going to take the work of our students, our faculty, our staff, and our vendors to really do that successfully. If we can do that this semester and get vaccinated, then I’m feeling much better about the outlook for the summer and the fall.”

According to Hertz, Lorain County Public Health informed the College that establishing its own vaccine distribution center could help bring the vaccine to the campus community sooner rather than later. The College plans to vaccinate students, faculty, staff, and vendors, while LCPH will operate vaccine centers that are open to the rest of the county community. 

At the moment, ODH’s final approval has been stalled while the College waits to receive a back-ordered freezer. 

“It sounds like they just want us to have the freezer in place, and then they will approve us,” Gravens said. “And we’re hoping that will be here relatively soon. … Now, does that mean we’ll get vaccines [right away]? I don’t think so, just because vaccines are so limited right now. But we want to have all the processes in place so that as soon as we receive it, we can begin an administration process.”

Dave Covell, Lorain County’s public health commissioner, expects that college-aged students could begin to receive the vaccine sometime in May, while the health department has informed Gravens that approval could come as early as April. This depends in part on the pending approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which would broadly expand vaccine availability. 

While the campus population was required to get a flu shot this year, people are not required to get a coronavirus vaccine. However, Hertz anticipates that a high percentage of faculty, staff, and student population will elect to receive it. 

Once most students and employees are vaccinated, the College has stated that campus life can begin to open up again. 

“This is going to allow campus to begin to return to what was known in the past,” Gravens said. “If we get people vaccinated, we don’t have to have as many restrictions, and that’s our goal — is to let students begin to have a full experience again.”