Post #1357: Final William and Mary COVID-19 update for 2021

Posted on December 19, 2021


For the week ending last Friday, there were six new COVID-19 cases found at William and Mary.   So the rate is back under one new case per day on average.

Source:  Calculated from William and Mary COVID-19 dashboard.

In hindsight, that little blip of 11 new cases in the prior week might plausibly be attributed to infections acquired over Thanksgiving.  If you think of W&M as a bubble of sorts (98%-vaccinated, mask-mandated, rule-enforced, low infection rate), Thanksgiving forced students to step outside the bubble in large numbers.  It wouldn’t be a surprise if they brought a few cases back to campus.

The timing is about right.  My best guess, for the U.S. as a whole, is that it takes an average of about 4 to 5 days for symptoms to appear following infection, and then about another 5 or 6 days for the typical individual to seek care, be tested, and have the test results tabulated.  Call it 10 days on average.  Which would mean that the bulk of infections incurred around Thanksgiving would show up in the data for the week ending 12/10/2021.

We’ll never know for sure one way or the other.  But the timing is right.


I guess it seems a bit compulsive to have continued to track this, given the low infection rate.  But not all colleges have been as lucky as W&M.  In particular, Cornell shut down just four days ago due to an outbreak of COVID.  Apparently, what they have is an outbreak of Omicron.  Which tore through the student body despite a mask mandate and a 97% vaccination rate.

And if you’re of a mind to indulge in some gloom and doom, note that Cornell was not the only instance.  Most of these new campus outbreaks are being attributed to likely Omicron infections, as they are all occurring in places with vaccination rates similar to those of William and Mary.

So, lucky.  I think that’s the correct term.  That’s an odd word, given all the precautions taken by W&M administration and students.  But if you look at Cornell, and other cases like Cornell, that appears to be the right word for it.

Our kids appear to have brought back just good old Delta, after Thanksgiving.  So we got a little bump in cases, but that’s the end of it.  If a few of them had stumbled across Omicron, my guess is that we’d be singing a different tune.

Omicron, my fringe opinion.

Let me preface this with a few old saws.

Free advice is usually worth what you paid for it.  Opinions are like belly buttons, everybody has one.  YMMV.  So take this FWIW.

I’ve been tracking the data on Omicron just about as carefully as a person outside of the official U.S. public health bureaucracy can.  And I’m a Ph.D. health economist, so I’ve had a lot of experience dealing with the ins and outs of health care data.

My opinion on Omicron now falls far, far outside of the mainstream.  In a nutshell, I’m betting that the U.S. Omicron wave will be short and sharp, that it might lead to more peak cases than the just-prior Delta waves (but not vastly so), and that despite that, we’ll see far fewer hospitalizations and deaths than we’re seeing under Delta.

If you want to see how I arrived at that opinion, just start reading back through my last dozen or so posts.  Starting with what I posted earlier today (Post #1356),  on the peak of the Omicron wave in South Africa now occurring just three-and-a-half weeks after the first cases of it were detected.

So what’s my best guess for W&M, next year?

For sure, when W&M students return to campus near the end of January 2022, they will do so under Omicron, not Delta.  That’s a given at this point.  The U.S. will likely pass the point where Omicron is the dominant strain some time next week (Post #1353).

In addition, I’ll bet that the U.S. Omicron wave will have already peaked in mid-January.  Weeks before the late-January general return to campus.  How fast new Omicron cases will fall, after the peak, is yet to be determined.  It’s well worth continuing to watch South Africa in that regard.  I’m not even going to hazard a guess absent hard data.

By that time, if the severity of the typical Omicron infection is as low as I believe it to be, that fact should be apparent from South African data, as well as data from Great Britain.  In other words, if the typical Omicron case really is as mild as I think the preliminary data show (see prior posts), it should be hard to ignore that.

But that’s not going to stop people from trying.  As of mid-January 2022, our official public health infrastructure might still be telling us that it’s just too soon to tell about the overall severity of Omicron relative to Delta.  As I noted in my just-prior post, they more-or-less have an ethical duty to do that for as long as possible.

At that point, colleges will face some interesting choices about return to campus.  And we can all be glad that we aren’t college administrators.

Best available evidence shows that two shots of vaccine doesn’t produce much of an antibody response to Omicron.  In other words, Omicron blows past the standard two-dose vaccination regimen.   That’s how you can have a huge outbreak on a campus that’s 97% vaccinated.  But three vaccine shots, by contrast, produces some reasonable antibody response (though only about half as much for Omicron as occurs for Delta).

Given that, I would be completely unsurprised if W&M requires everyone to have a booster shot before returning to campus.  If I were running the show, that’s the first thing I’d do.  And, given that it takes time to build immunity, they’re going to have to announce that no later than in early January.  Which will be good timing, because the U.S. should be squarely in the grip of a large wintertime wave of Omicron just about then.

At which point, my sincere hope is that folks will just roll up their sleeves and get it done.  In the hopes of having something approaching a normal semester.   Because, after that, the tools consist of things that are a lot more disruptive, both of quality of life and quality of education.

If it were up to me, the obvious next step would be to mandate not just use of masks, but use of high-filtration masks. I’d require use of NIOSH-certified N95 masks (respirators).  Those are no longer in short supply (you can pick them up at Home Depot, e.g.).  Given that they are cheap and plentiful now, it’s not like recommending N95 masks for all is a novel idea (see Post #977).  And that can easily be enforced because every NIOSH-certified N95 mask has to have that literally printed on the mask.

That said, when I supplied my daughter with a “mask sampler” of masks that I judged to be adequate, the hands-down winner was an ear-loop-style KF94 mask.  It was the LG Airwasher, to be precise: See Post #1236 and Post #1246.  So at some level, it’s not entirely about the best possible mask.  It’s about getting people to wear the best mask that they are willing to wear.  Possibly, the school administration would merely encourage people to wear only good masks, and provide a list of masks that meet some standards of adequate filtration, if the list needs to be broader than NIOSH-certified N95.

That said, my emphasis on quality masks reflects my own take on the data (see, e.g., Post #935, If you have 10-cent lungs, by all means, wear a 10-cent mask.)  You might also check out Post #942, where I do the math to show why an N95 results in exposure to vastly less viral load than a typical cloth or procedure mask.

Once you get past a) better vaccines and b) better masks, things get fairly intrusive in terms of the educational and social experience on campus.  We’re back to remote learning, hybrid classes, restrictions on social gatherings, no indoor dining.  And all the rest of that stuff.

So if you don’t like vaccines or masks, well, guess what?  Nobody does (see All the masks I’ve ever loved, Post #987).  It’s just a question of the lesser of evils.  I’d rather see on-campus learning, masked, than remote learning in any form.

Finally, what’s going to make this all the more interesting is that W&M administrators will have to make all these choices in advance.  Which, given how fast Omicron appears to be moving, means they’ll probably be making them around the time Omicron is peaking in the U.S.  And that will almost certainly be before any official U.S. pronouncement regarding the severity of Omicron relative to Delta.

In other words, those decisions are going to have to be made when things are looking pretty bleak.  I’m sure glad that’s not my job.