COVID-19 Update: February 10, 2022

COVID-19 response weekly update

Dear colleagues,

I write today about changes to our testing program and the rationale for the changes.

Almost two years ago, as the pandemic was beginning, we developed a set of principles to guide our decisions. One of those principles was to protect the health of our community by employing the best scientific information currently available. Another was to “continue carrying out our academic mission as best as possible given the circumstances.” This is why we adjust our COVID polices and tools as the circumstances change – to stay as close to normal as feasible in terms of our mission activities, while staying safe.

The current dominant variant, omicron, is highly transmissible and the time from exposure to infection is fast. Thus we’ve seen more cases at Rice over the past month than we did in all of 2021. By the time people test positive, they have often already exposed others, and this high speed of transmission compromises the effectiveness of our isolation and quarantine procedures. Fortunately, the current wave is receding, and in the highly vaccinated and boosted Rice community, the vast majority of people who have tested positive have had either mild or no symptoms.

The widespread availability in the United States of effective vaccines and boosters, and antiviral treatments for those with COVID, has fundamentally changed the risks we face. We also now have a far better understanding of how to protect ourselves with additional public health measures like wearing masks and improving building ventilation. Thus, as previously communicated, we have begun to think of the pandemic as an ongoing endemic condition that may be with us for a significant time to come and that is generally less life-threatening.

This understanding requires a different approach to our COVID policies and practices going forward. While the total number of positive cases will become less concerning, we will continue to work to prevent serious illness among those who have medical conditions that place them more at risk. Tools that have served us well in the past such as extensive contact tracing and mass surveillance testing are now less useful, and they will be modified to emphasize more targeted approaches and individual responsibility. This allows us to rebalance the measures we have taken to also focus on improving the wellbeing of our community and increasing the vitality of our educational experience. We believe we are now in a position to modify restrictions and surveillance measures without significantly increasing health risk.

Over the past months, we have been evaluating our surveillance testing strategies. PCR testing for more dangerous variants such as delta was effective, but it is less useful for omicron. In addition, PCR-based testing is not recommended for 90 days after a positive result and thus further limits the effectiveness of surveillance. Therefore, we are announcing a modification to one of our foundational pandemic tools: our on-campus PCR surveillance testing. Effective Monday Feb. 14, and likely for the remainder of the semester, the following policies apply:

  • Mandatory surveillance testing for fully vaccinated members of the Rice community is no longer required. [Rice defines fully vaccinated as having received the two-shot Pfizer or Moderna regime plus a booster shot or the one-shot J&J vaccine plus a booster.]
  • On-campus PCR testing from both Methodist and Baylor Genetics will continue to be available to everyone who wants a test, Monday through Friday. If you have an exposure to someone who has tested positive, we urge you to get tested.
  • People who are not fully vaccinated must continue to test once per week through our on-campus PCR testing program.
  • Daily symptomatic testing will continue on campus, and those with COVID symptoms should be tested as soon as possible.

Later this semester, we will augment on-campus PCR testing with antigen tests, also known as rapid tests. These at-home, available-on-demand tests have improved over the past year, are becoming more widely available and are effective at detecting individuals who have high viral loads that can more easily infect others. We have ordered 30,000 rapid tests and are awaiting confirmation of delivery dates. You can also order your own free rapid tests from the federal government here, and we encourage you to do so. [Note that there have been some problems using the addresses of the residential colleges for delivery; public officials are aware of these problems.]

We will continue to monitor scientific information and guidance related to COVID, notably for any new variants that emerge, and will update our policies and practices as necessary.

Kevin E. Kirby
Chair of the Crisis Management Advisory Committee
Vice President for Administration